MANILA (Reuters) - The leader of a small but violent splinter group of Muslim rebels died on Tuesday, the head of Philippine military said, removing a hindrance to a peace process to end a 45-year-old conflict in the south of the mainly Catholic country.
Ameril Umbra Kato, a Muslim cleric, who organized the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) to continue the armed struggle to set up an independent Islamic state, suffered a heart attack in his hideout in Maguindanao province.
"We have pictures of his burial," General Gregorio Catapang said, confirming Kato's death.
"He died of natural causes. Before this, he had a diabetic stroke that immobilized him."
Abu Misri Mama, a spokesman for the BIFF, also confirmed the death of Kato after speaking with the Muslim rebel leader's son, Omar, who is expected to takeover the leadership of the armed group of around 300 fighters active in central Mindanao.
Kato, a former field commander of the country's largest Muslim rebel group, Moro Islamic Liberation Front, opposed the peace negotiations with the government after an ancestral land deal in 2008 was nullified by the Supreme Court.
The army and mainstream rebels said Kato's death boded well for peace talks to end the conflict that has killed 120,000 people, displaced 2 million and stunted growth in the poor but resource-rich areas in the south.
The peace process stalled after the deadly clash that killed 44 police commandos, 17 rebels and four civilians on Jan. 25 as lawmakers suspended debates on a law to create a new autonomous Muslim area in the south. BIFF fighters were involved in firefight.
"This will help the peace process because we all know his group is a peace spoiler," Catapang told a television interview.
Mohagher Iqbal, MILF chief peace negotiator, said they will welcome back Kato's followers to their group if they wish to rejoin. "We will not accept those who had committed crimes, like bombings and extortion," he said.
But, a former police general and terrorism expert Rodolfo Mendoza said BIFF remained a dangerous group and capable of bomb attacks and attacks targeting Christian communities in the south.
"Kato's death will surely have an effect, but the problem will not go away," he said. "You can take out the leader, but like any other terrorist organization, the leader can be replaced."
(Reporting By Manuel Mogato; Editing By Simon Cameron-Moore)