A breakaway group of Muslim rebels used chainsaws to launch simultaneous attacks across 11 towns in the southern Philippines yesterday, leaving at least three dead, officials said.
A civilian died in crossfire, while the army said the bodies of two Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) had been recovered hours after the attacks in Maguindanao Province.
The rebels used chainsaws to bring down electricity pylons before dawn, plunging several towns into darkness, and then opened fire on army detachments, police and the military said.
“Sporadic heavy fighting continued in the morning, but we have set up roadblocks while the military went after the rebels,” provincial police chief Senior Superintendent Marcelo Pintac said.
He said that as well as cutting off electricity, the rebels were also believed to have planted improvised bombs along a major highway that runs through the strife-torn province of Maguindanao, where the fighting erupted.
Maguindanao Governor Esmael Mangudadatu said “hundreds” of villagers were believed to have fled their homes as government forces repelled the rebels with helicopter gunships.
A section of the main highway that connects Maguindanao to other provinces was closed to motorists as the fighting spilled over to the area, he said.
“They sabotaged power lines and attacked 11 towns. We are now largely in control except for a section of the highway that remains closed,” he said. “We are trying to reach out to them so we can have a truce, but in the meantime, commuters are advised to stay put and avoid traveling to the area.”
The government’s chief presidential adviser on the peace process, Teresita Deles, said the attack was apparently meant to derail negotiations with the larger, more mainstream Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
BIFF is headed by Ameril Umbrakato, a hardline Saudi Arabian-educated guerrilla who split from the 12,000-strong MILF, which has dropped its bid for full independence and is negotiating for an autonomous region.
Umbrakato has boasted of having about 5,000 armed fighters, though military officials believe he only has a few hundred under his command.
“This act of aggression ... is meant to derail the peace process,” Deles said in a statement, as she sought to assure the public the violence would not affect a new round of talks set to resume in Malaysia this week.
Umbrakato had previously accused his former comrades of betraying the rebellion’s ultimate goal of an independent Islamic state in the troubled south.
The government has said it hopes to sign a peace deal with MILF by the end of the year, but has asked the MILF leadership to help contain Umbrakato’s forces. BIFF opposes peace talks with the government.