A breakaway group of Muslim rebels launched simultaneous attacks across 11 towns in the southern Philippines on Monday, killing at least one civilian, officials said.
One soldier was hurt while hundreds of villagers fled their homes in fear of being caught in crossfire between the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and troops, government officials said.
The rebels used chainsaws to bring down electrical relay posts before dawn, plunging several towns into darkness, and opened fire on army detachments, according to local police chief Senior Superintendent Marcelo Pintac.
“Sporadic heavy fighting continued in the morning, but we have set up roadblocks while the military went after the rebels,” Pintac told AFP.
He said that as well as cutting off electricity, the rebels were also believed to have planted improvised bombs along a major highway that runs through the strife-torn province of Maguindanao, where the fighting erupted.
Provincial governor Esmael Mangudadatu said one civilian died in the clashes, while local officials had reported “hundreds” of people fleeing their homes.
“They sabotaged power lines and attacked 11 towns. We are now largely in control except for a section of the highway that remains closed,” he said.
“We are trying to reach out to them so we can have a truce, but in the meantime, commuters are advised to stay put and avoid travelling to the area.”
The BIFF is headed by Ameril Umbrakato, a hardline Saudi Arabian-educated guerrilla who split from the 12,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) after it entered into peace talks with Manila.
Umbrakato has boasted of having about 5,000 armed fighters, though military officials believe he only has a few hundred under his command.
He has accused his former comrades of betraying the rebellion’s ultimate goal of an independent Islamic state in the troubled south.
The government has said it hopes to sign a peace deal with the MILF by the end of the year, but has asked the MILF leadership to help contain Umbrakato’s forces.
The Muslim insurgency on the island of Mindanao began in the early 1970s and the fighting has killed some 150,000 people, miring large parts of the south in deep poverty.
Abu Misri, a spokesman for Umbrakato, told AFP by phone that the attack had been launched to avenge the alleged unprovoked killing of a BIFF member by troops in June.
He said his men were under instructions not to stand down, despite rebel positions being pounded by helicopter gunships.
“We are not harming civilians. But we are prepared to die,” he said.