MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine troops have captured the leader of a Muslim rebel group who has been linked to bombings and a beheading and accused of protecting two terror suspects wanted by the United States, officials said Monday.
Army and police forces arrested Mohammad Ali Tambako and five of his companions late Sunday while the militants were traveling in a motorcycle sidecar taxi to a seaport in southern General Santos city. Three grenades and two guns were seized from the militants, one of whom was later freed after investigators ascertained he was just hired as a driver by the group, military spokesman Lt. Col. Harold Cabunoc said.
Military chief of staff Gregorio Pio Catapang told a news conference that Tambako's capture could put his new group out of existence.
"I think they are now history," Catapang said at Manila's Villamor Air Base, where an air force plane transported Tambako and his men in handcuffs.
Catapang said Tambako posed a danger because he has traveled to Libya, Pakistan and Egypt and "had established a network of contacts among the notorious Islamic fundamentalists around the world" before returning to take part in the Muslim insurrection the southern Philippines.
Tambako, who formed the group Justice for Islamic Movement with about 70 armed fighters last year, has been suspected by the military of giving refuge in his southern stronghold to top Malaysian terror suspect Zulkifli bin Hir, also known as Marwan, and long-wanted Filipino bombing suspect Abdul Basit Usman.
The United States and the Philippines have offered huge rewards for the capture and prosecution of Marwan and Usman. Marwan was reportedly killed in a Jan. 25 raid by Filipino police anti-terror commandos in the marshy heartland of the country's south. The FBI said in February that DNA analysis suggested that Marwan had been killed but more tests were needed to confirm his death.
Forty-four commandos involved in the raid against Marwan were killed in gunbattles with different Muslim rebel groups as they withdrew from the far-flung region, the largest single-day government combat loss in recent memory. That prompted the military last month to launch an offensive that has killed about 100 suspected insurgents and led to the capture of Tambako.
Tambako's former armed group, the hard-line Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement, expelled him last year after his men beheaded a farmer in an attack on a Christian community in the south. That prompted him to form his own rebel band, which has been linked to several deadly bombings and attacks, including the clashes with police commandos, military officials said.
Insurgents involved in that skirmish were also from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the largest insurgent group in the south which signed a peace accord with the government last year. The Moro rebels said the clash was accidental because the police commandos did not coordinate their anti-terror raid with their group as provided under a longstanding truce.