MANILA // Gunmen from a breakaway Muslim rebel group attacked army outposts in the southern Philippines, sparking clashes that killed at least three people and shattered years of calm in the notoriously violent region, officials said today.
Dozens of armed fighters from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement launched simultaneous attacks on army detachments in four towns in Maguindanao province late Sunday and sporadic clashes were continuing yesterday, said Esmael Mangudadatu, the provincial governor. The gunmen also attacked two army outposts in nearby North Cotabato province.
Mr Mangudadatu said two attackers were killed in Maguindanao, along with a villager who was hit by stray gunfire as he travelled on a motorcycle along a main motorway. Eight people, including five soldiers and militiamen, were wounded in the violence.
At the height of the attacks, villagers fled from their homes and 11 of Maguindanao's 36 towns lost power. Military officials suspect the gunmen may have destroyed power lines.
The 200-strong rebel group, led by Ameril Umbra Kato, broke off last year from the larger Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which has engaged the government in peace talks being brokered by Malaysia. Mr Kato's group has opposed the years-long negotiations.
Mr Kato had vowed to continue fighting for an independent homeland for minority Muslims in the south of this predominantly Roman Catholic nation. He had a stroke in November, plunging his group to uncertainty.
Abu Misri Mammah, a spokesman for Mr Kato's group, said the rebels were avenging the death of a fellow militant who was killed when army troops advanced on a guerrilla stronghold in Maguindanao last month.
"What we launched were hit-and-run harassments," he told a local radio station, adding that his group has no plan to carry out further attacks.
Soldiers and police were pursuing the fleeing gunmen yesterday.
The 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front ordered its rebels to remain in their encampments as government forces battled the breakaway guerrillas. Von Al Haq, a spokesman, said his group did not want to be accidentally drawn into the fighting.
The presidential adviser on the peace talks, Teresita Deles, said the attacks by Mr Kato's forces were meant to derail the peace talks, but she assured the public the violence would not affect the negotiations.
The latest fighting is among the worst since 2008, when peace talks bogged down and ignited clashes between Moro Islamic Liberation Front forces and government troops in Maguindanao and outlying provinces. That fighting killed hundreds and displaced 750,000 people before both sides agreed to a ceasefire.