MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine forces have killed 73 hard-line Muslim rebels and a suspected foreign militant in a three-week offensive in the restive south, where 44 anti-terror police commandos were killed in January in a clash with insurgents, the military said Monday.
Military spokesman Lt. Col. Harold Cabunoc said six soldiers had been killed and 29 others have been wounded in the assaults that started Feb. 25 and have displaced about 25,000 villagers in a marshy region in the boundary of Maguindanao and North Cotabato provinces.
Military chief of staff Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang ordered the assault against the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement rebels after they attacked civilian villages. The rebels also have been implicated in the Jan. 25 killings of 44 commandos during a raid to hunt a suspected terrorist in Maguindanao.
Numbering a few hundred, the insurgents broke off a few years ago from the main Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which signed a new Muslim autonomy deal with the government last year. The breakaway rebels vowed to continue fighting for a separate Muslim homeland.
"We have degraded their capability to conduct atrocities. They are running out of ammunition," Cabunoc told reporters.
The breakaway rebels have played down such military reports of battle gains in the past, branding them as propaganda.
The foreign militant was killed by Filipino marines late Saturday in a gunbattle in Maguindanao's Shariff Saydona Mustapha town, Cabunoc said. The military has said without elaborating that the breakaway rebels have provided sanctuary to foreign allies, including at least four Indonesian militants and a Pakistani insurgent.
The 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front has acknowledged that its forces clashed accidentally with the police anti-terror commandos but blamed police officials for not coordinating the assault in a Muslim rebel community that targeted a top Malaysian terror suspect.
The main Moro rebel group's involvement in a clash that wrought the government's largest single-day combat loss in recent memory has stalled the peace deal it signed with the Philippine government last year and sparked criticisms against President Benigno Aquino III, who approved the anti-terror commando raid.
Aquino blamed an ousted police commander, Getulio Napenas, for the huge combat loss, saying the latter launched the assault despite potentially fatal setbacks, including a three-hour delay that deprived the commandos of a night cover. Napenas also did not follow his order to coordinate with the military for backup, Aquino said.
"If I knew this is what he'll do from the start, I would have rejected this mission," Aquino said Monday. "What could have been a really successful mission, under the plan he crafted, turned up like mission impossible."