Updated: 07/07/2013 19:40 | By Agence France-Presse

Eight slain as Philippine troops clash with rebels

Five Philippine soldiers and three rogue Muslim rebels have been killed in clashes ahead of the resumption of talks aimed at ending a decades-old rebellion, the military said Sunday.


Eight slain as Philippine troops clash with rebels

Members of the breakaway Muslim separatist group Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) stand guard during a clandestine press conference in the town of Datu Unsay, Maguindanao province, in the southern Philippines, on August 28, 2011. Five gov't soldiers and three BIFF rebels have been killed in clashes ahead of the resumption of peace talks aimed at ending a decades-old rebellion.

The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, a splinter guerrilla group, ambushed an army truck and attacked an army camp on Saturday, said regional military chief Major-General Romeo Gapuz.

The fighting occurred two days before the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the country's largest Muslim guerrilla force, were to resume talks in neighbouring Malaysia on Monday.

"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.

A spokesman for MILF, which is observing a ceasefire, warned the fighting could spread before the resumption of talks.

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

A Philippine Army unit based nearby killed three of the rebels in a subsequent firefight, they added.

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

Gapuz said the armed forces are pursuing the attackers.

He claimed the action is being coordinated with the MILF through a 2002 agreement in which both sides pledged to work together in the "isolation and interdiction" of criminal gangs and guerrilla "lost commands" operating in the region.

Military checkpoints blocked roads leading to Datu Piang early Sunday, local journalists said, while there was heavy air activity by military helicopters.

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 a telephone interview, referring to a Mindanao province where his group operates.

Ghazali Jaafar, vice chairman for political affairs of the MILF, told Manila television network ABS-CBN his group was closely monitoring the 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 organisation.

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.

He could not be reached for comment by AFP on Sunday.

The BIFF is led by Ameril Umbrakato, 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.

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.

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