MANILA, Philippines—Suspected militants from a breakaway Muslim rebel group set off bombs in the southern Philippines but failed to inflict injuries or disrupt army assaults against its fighters, who went on a rampage last week and sparked clashes that killed 28 people.
Hundreds of troops, backed by helicopters, tanks and artillery fire, forced armed fighters of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement out of two strongholds and were pursuing them mostly in remote areas of Maguindanao province.
A new clash erupted on Sunday in Maguindanao’s Datu Unsay Town, where the gunmen opened fire on a convoy of tanks, prompting the army to fire artillery rounds on rebel positions. There were no immediate reports of casualties, officials said.
The army is trying to drive the gunmen away from a major highway which was closed last week to protect commuters from rebel sniper fire.
At least seven homemade bombs have exploded in recent days along roads and in villages in Maguindanao and nearby North Cotabato province in an apparent attempt by the breakaway rebels to divert the army’s focus from ongoing assaults. But the army assaults have proceeded despite the bombings, including four blasts late Friday and Saturday, army officials said.
“We believe these were diversionary attacks,” said deputy regional military commander Commodore Romeo Santiago Nebres. He said troops have strengthened security in public areas and for power transmission towers, two of which were damaged by rebel bombs.
Authorities were preparing criminal complaints against Ameril Umbra Kato, the ailing leader of the breakaway rebels and his known commanders, who attacked army camps and outposts and burned and looted villages last week, Nebres said.
The attacks killed four soldiers and three civilians and sparked clashes that initially killed four rebels. Hundreds of troops later pursued the rebels, killing at least 16 more of the militants, who tried to slow down the advancing soldiers with sniper fire.
Suspected rebel snipers killed a police officer guarding a highway in Maguindanao’s Datu Unsay Town on Saturday, the military said.
The clashes, which shattered years of relative calm in the volatile southern region, forced more than 39,000 villagers to flee from homes, according to the government’s Office of Civil Defense.
Village guard Roger Apenida said the rebels descended on his farming village in Maguindanao’s Ampatuan Town early last week and held him and dozens of other villagers hostage for a day before allowing them to flee when army troops approached. The gunmen seized 32 cellphones from the residents and then destroyed bottles of liquor, a billiard table and a karaoke machine in three stores.
“The rebels were carrying two Qurans and told us such vices as liquor were banned under Islamic laws,” said Apenida, who took refuge in an evacuation center in a nearby village.
The rebel group broke off last year from the larger Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which is involved in peace talks with the government. The breakaway guerrillas oppose the negotiations and have vowed to continue fighting for an independent homeland for minority Muslims in the south of the predominantly Roman Catholic nation.
The group’s hardline leader, Kato, had a stroke in November, plunging his group into uncertainty, but the renewed fighting indicates he still has firepower.