MANILA, Philippines – Philippine troops have killed at least 40 Islamic fighters and captured a rebel stronghold with a bomb-making facility in a three-day offensive against insurgents opposed to a new peace deal, military officials said Thursday.
President Benigno Aquino III said the military launched the assault to protect villages after Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement fighters, including snipers, staged attacks in southern Maguindanao province.
The rebels involved in the fighting have opposed peace talks between the government and the larger Moro Islamic Liberation Front which were concluded over the weekend in Malaysia.
They have promised to continue their uprising, saying the Malaysian-brokered talks would not lead to a separate homeland for minority Muslims in the south.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who is visiting Manila, called on all Filipinos to rally behind the peace talks because they would bring massive benefits and help foster peace in the south.
"That is the quickest way, of course, to bring to an end any fighting that remains," Hague told reporters.
Regional military spokesman Col. Dickson Hermoso said 12 of the slain rebels have been identified with the help of village leaders, while others were found buried in graves in and near Ganta village in Maguindanao.
The fighting left one soldier dead and 12 others wounded by bombs hidden around a mosque and by rebel mortar fire, Hermoso said.
After two days of attacks, army troops captured a key rebel stronghold Wednesday that spanned two villages in a swampy mountain foothill in Maguindanao where the insurgents made bombs and carried out combat training. Several bombs and materials for making explosives were seized by troops, Hermoso said.
"It's like a bomb factory," Hermoso said. "We don't negotiate with groups like this who threaten innocent civilians. We run after them to enforce the law."
The offensive, which was supposed to end Wednesday, will be extended to Saturday as troops pursue the retreating rebels, who have split into smaller groups, he said.
Rebel spokesman Abu Misry said part of their stronghold had been taken by government forces but denied any of their fighters had been killed or captured. He said seven insurgents had been wounded by army shelling and helicopter rocket fire.
"They can take our camps but if they don't capture us, they cannot stop our jihad," Misry said by telephone, referring to the term for holy war.
About 10,000 villagers have fled the fighting, which underscores the difficulty of ending violence in the country's south.
Aside from the main Moro rebel group that concluded negotiations Saturday with the government on a new Muslim autonomy deal in the south, at least four other smaller insurgent groups threaten peace in the region.
Those groups include the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement and the smaller but more brutal Abu Sayyaf, which is notorious for bombings, kidnappings for ransom and beheadings.
Aquino said the new peace deal would bring the government and the 11,000-strong main Moro rebel group together to pursue outlaws who have long thrived in the conflict.