MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippine military launched an offensive Saturday against a breakaway Muslim rebel group that opposes a peace deal and has claimed responsibility for a recent bomb attack that wounded seven soldiers in the country's volatile south.
At least two rebels were killed and two soldiers were wounded during "intense fighting" early Saturday between soldiers and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement in North Cotabato province's Aleosan township, said Col. Dickson Hermoso of the army's 6th Infantry Division.
The army pounded the rebels with mortar and cannon fire to prevent them from advancing and taking control of a key highway, he said.
The rebel group set off a roadside bomb Wednesday in nearby Maguindanao province, wounding seven soldiers, and warned of more attacks. It broke away from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which has signed a preliminary peace accord with the government.
The military said another roadside bomb believed to have been planted by the group exploded early Saturday in another town in Maguindanao. There were no casualties. A second homemade bomb was found and safely detonated in the same area.
Provincial Gov. Emmylou Mendoza said about 2,000 people fled their homes to avoid being caught in the fighting.
A similar offensive was launched earlier against the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf in Basilan province farther south to stop the militants from manufacturing bombs for attacks in other southern cities. At least one soldier and an estimated seven militants were killed in the fighting in Basilan on Thursday.
Local army commander Col. Carlito Galvez said the offensive was meant to prevent the group from making more bombs for attacks after Eid al-Fitr, the three-day festivities celebrating the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan that began Thursday.
Abu Sayyaf is notorious for bomb attacks, ransom kidnappings and beheading hostages. It is on the U.S. and European lists of terror organizations.
Several bomb attacks over the past two weeks in the southern Philippines have killed 16 people and wounded about 100 others.