MANILA, Philippines (AP) – Philippine troops killed eight breakaway Muslim rebels who attacked an oil tanker truck and placed bombs along a highway, forcing its closure for several hours, as sporadic clashes raged Tuesday in a restive southern province.
The driver of the oil truck prevented a disaster by speeding away from dozens of gunmen belonging to the Bangsamoro Islamic Liberation Movement toward an army outpost in Maguindanao province’s Guindolongan town, regional military spokesman Col. Dickson Hermoso said.
The driver was slightly wounded in the head. Gunfire damaged the truck’s windshield and some of its tires, as well as another cargo truck behind the oil tanker.
Army troops closed the highway for several hours as they defused two bombs and clashed with the insurgents, killing eight, in running gunbattles that spilled into nearby towns, he said.
The breakaway rebels have launched attacks in recent weeks in Maguindanao, a mountainous marshland about 900 kilometers (560 miles) southeast of Manila, to try to sabotage peace talks between the government and the main insurgent group, the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The talks, which have been brokered by Malaysia, have made progress toward a new autonomy deal for minority Muslims in the south of the largely Roman Catholic Philippines.
The rebel faction, which has about 200 armed fighters, has said the talks will go nowhere and vowed to continue fighting for a separate Muslim homeland in the south.
“They’ve been left out so they’re trying to make a scene,” Hermoso said. “But the problem is they’re turning to innocent people because they could not face us.”
Suspected members of the rebel faction detonated a bomb made of two 60mm mortar rounds but failed to destroy a concrete bridge that serves as an entryway to Datu Piang town near Guindolongan late Sunday, the military said.
On Monday, another group of breakaway rebels fired on a government militia outpost in Midsayap town in nearby North Cotabato province, setting of a clash with troops. The guerrillas fled, taking several water buffalos and two motorcycles along the way. They shot and killed a farmer who refused to hand over his buffalo, the military said.
While large numbers of troops and police have been deployed to secure the highway and communities at risk in Maguindanao, the military has limited its response during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Still, government forces have been on continuous alert and are ready to quell any trouble, Hermoso said.
There have been fears that the attacks, including bombings, could escalate after Ramadan.
The emergence of the splinter rebel group complicates efforts to end the Muslim unrest, which has long set back progress in southern Philippine regions awash with weapons and beset by poverty, weak governance and neglect.