MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine troops clashed with hardline Muslim rebels opposed to the government's newly concluded peace deal with a main insurgent group, killing at least two militants Monday, military officials said.
The clash underscored the difficulty of ending violence in the country's south despite the widely hailed conclusion over the weekend of Malaysian-brokered peace talks between the government and the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
At least four other smaller rebel groups threaten the peace in the south, including the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement, which took part in Monday's fighting.
Regional army spokesman Col. Dickson Hermoso said police backed by troops were on the way to arrest rebel commanders when the clash erupted in a vast marshland of southern Maguindanao province.
Police also came under fire Sunday when they attempted to arrest the rebel group's commanders in another Maguindanao area.
Army troops launched artillery strikes and deployed two helicopter gunships after dozens of rebels were seen massing near two communities, prompting many villagers to flee to safety. The sporadic clashes eased later Monday and troops were continuing to hunt down the rebels, Hermoso said.
Rebel spokesman Abu Misry said two fighters were wounded by army gunfire and shelling. He said the deaths reported by the military may have been civilians caught in the crossfire. The rebels may retaliate by attacking government forces, he said.
Misry's group, which has a few hundred fighters, has opposed the peace talks and vowed to continue fighting for a separate Muslim homeland in predominantly Roman Catholic nation's south.
The peace deal has been the most significant progress made over 13 years of negotiations to tame a tenacious insurgency that has left more than 120,000 people dead and crippled development in Muslim-populated southern regions that are among the poorest in the country.
The pact calls for the Moro insurgents to end violence in exchange for broader autonomy. An existing five-province Muslim autonomous region is to be replaced by a more powerful, better-funded and potentially larger region to be called Bangsamoro, which would be secured by a force composed of former guerrillas.
Political analyst Julkipli Wadi, who has studied the Muslim unrest, said the government should have taken steps to include other armed groups in the peace process. He expressed fear that the Moro rebels could end up fighting rival groups.
"The MILF may now shift from being revolutionaries to becoming part of a police force," Wadi said.