36 die in clashes ahead of peace talks


COTABATO CITY, Philippines (3rd Update) - At least 31 Muslim rebels and 5 soldiers were killed in clashes ahead of the resumption of peace talks aimed at ending a decades-old rebellion, the military said Sunday, July 7.

The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a splinter guerrilla group, ambushed an army truck and attacked an army camp on Saturday, July 6, said regional military commander Maj Gen Romeo Gapuz.

The fighting occurred before the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the country's largest Muslim guerrilla force, were to resume talks in neighboring Malaysia on Monday, July 8.

"The BIFF is hell-bent on derailing the (Philippines-MILF) peace talks by launching simultaneous attacks against civilian and military installations," Gapuz said in a written statement.

The BIFF set off a roadside bomb as a military truck drove past in the mainly rural Datu Piang, killing 3 soldiers, officials said.

The rebels simultaneously attacked an army detachment in another section of the town, killing two other soldiers, a military report said.

Gapuz said the armed forces were pursuing the attackers.

Col Dickson Hermoso, spokesman for the military’s 6th Division, said by phone that soldiers penetrated Ganta in Shariff Saydona Mustapha, a BIFF stronghold, resulting in heavy casualties on the enemy side.

"The threat to the peace process has been contained. Their stronghold, where they meet and plan how to launch attacks, has been captured by our soldiers," Hermoso said.

There were reports that 6 civilians, including a 2-year-old, were hit by mortars, but Hermoso said they were still investigating this.

Military operations

BIFF spokesman Abu Misry confirmed that his group was behind Saturday's attacks.

"We will continue our guerilla offensives against the military until they leave Maguindanao," Misry told Catholic-run local radio station DXMS in an interview.

Ghazali Jaafar, vice chairman for political affairs of the MILF, told television network ABS-CBN his group was closely monitoring military operations against the BIFF.

"This operation might escalate into wider areas. We are very much concerned because we don't want that to happen," he said.

Jaafar said the MILF has not contacted the BIFF following the attacks Saturday and did not plan to, since the group no longer took orders from his organization.

However, he said the MILF has received assurances that the military would conclude its operations within the day.

"I don't think it will affect the negotiations tomorrow," Jaafar added.

The BIFF is led by Ameril Umra Kato, a Saudi Arabia-trained cleric who had commanded an elite MILF unit.

He and his unit were blamed for a series of raids across Mindanao in 2008 that left nearly 400 people dead and displaced hundreds of thousands.

Umbrakato was expelled by the MILF in 2011 for his hardline stance against the peace talks.

Peace talks

The MILF is to resume negotiations in Malaysia on Monday, Jaafar and an aide for the Philippine government negotiators both said Sunday.

However, both sides declined to discuss details.

The peace talks aim to create an autonomous region for the Muslim minority in Mindanao, the southern third of the mainly Catholic nation of 100 million.

The two sides signed a preliminary agreement in October outlining the broad terms for a peace treaty that would be signed by 2016.

The Philippine government earlier said the remaining talks seek to resolve differences on key issues like wealth and power-sharing, as well as disarming and demobilising the MILF.

The 12,000-member MILF has waged a guerrilla war for a separate Islamic state in Mindanao since the 1970s that has claimed an estimated 150,000 lives. – with reports from Jeoffrey Maitem and Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com