The Philippine military said clashes with some 70 fighters of the Abu Sayyaf group in Basilan island province Thursday killed one soldier and seven militants. The operation targeting an alleged bomb-making network follows a string of deadly blasts in the south. The attacks have affected negotiations for a permanent peace deal with the largest Muslim rebel group.
The military said the Abu Sayyaf group was planning a string of attacks for the end of the Muslim fasting month in the coming days. In the past two weeks, five blasts believed to be the work of at least two rebel groups have killed 16 people and wounded scores of others.
In a nationally televised speech at a business conference in Davao City, southwest of the bombing hotspots, President Benigno Aquino had a stern warning for the culprits.
“To those who want to challenge the authority of the State, you will feel the full brunt, depth, and might of the State’s response. You will not get in the way of the peace and the stability that will help fulfill the potential of Mindanao,” he stated.
Police have charged six suspects who are allegedly members of a tiny group calling for an independent Islamic state for one of the bombings. Another group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement, claimed responsibility for an attack on a military truck. Authorities have not named suspects in the other three explosions.
Aquino said at a news conference after his speech that his security team is looking closely at three groups suspected of joining forces to derail ongoing peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Philippines largest Muslim rebel group.
The group’s chief negotiator Mohager Iqbal said other militants may be stirring up trouble, but they will not detract from the peace talks. “On the contrary, I think it gives more reason for the parties to find a way to fast-track the peace process until the comprehensive agreement will be signed by the parties,” he said.
Iqbal’s counterpart on the government peace panel agrees, saying having lasting peace will isolate such groups in the end.
Iqbal said the MILF peace panel has ordered its ceasefire committee to find out who is behind the bombings and why they are being carried out.
The Philippine military is also stepping up security in the region. Armed Forces of the Philippines Spokesman Ramon Zagala said one infantry division in the heart of the hotspot is on alert. “We will have extra precautions especially in vital installations, more checkpoints," he said. "More support to the Philippine National Police and their security.”
Zagala said with the end of Ramadan, troops are once again pursuing the breakaway groups that are not part of the MILF. This includes the mostly criminally driven Abu Sayyaf Group and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement who have had deadly clashes with the military in recent months. This splinter group broke away from the MILF two years ago vowing to fight on for a separate state.
After a nearly 40 year insurgency, the 11,000-strong MILF entered into a preliminary peace deal with the government in October. Both sides expect to conclude talks on the decommissioning of arms and sharing power with government in the next months.