Hundreds of former Muslim rebels took up arms in the southern Philippines on Monday, shattering a five-year-old peace deal in a battle that left 55 people dead.
Guerrillas of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) launched a pre-dawn raid on an army camp on the island of Jolo, killing four soldiers and wounding 27 others in a rain of mortar shells, the army said. Lieutenant-General Roy Cimatu, the regional army commander, said the situation was under control by noon after a counter-attack with air force bombers and helicopter gunships killed 51 rebels and wounded 13.
The shelling of the army's 104th Infantry Brigade headquarters near the airport in Jolo town raises a challenge to President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who is visiting the United States to appeal for military aid in fighting other groups of Islamic separatists.
Brigadier-General Adilberto Adan, a military spokesman, said: "It's a deliberate plan to show to the government that the MNLF still has teeth." The now-factionalised MNLF was once the biggest Muslim group fighting for an Islamic state in the south of the largely Catholic country until it signed a peace deal with Manila in 1996, formally ending more than 30 years of fighting that killed more than 120,000 people.
Sporadic skirmishes have broken out but none so fierce as yesterday's raid, which was launched by armed followers of Nur Misuari – who leads a splinter group of the MNLF – a week before Muslims in the country's south were to hold elections. Mr Misuari became governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao under the peace accord, signed by him as head of the MNLF. He was deposed as MNLF leader this year, and says the elections scheduled for 26 November are a violation of the peace agreement.
Yesterday's attack poses a severe security problem for the Arroyo government as it tries to win back investor confidence shaken by tourist kidnappings and political turmoil.
Rigoberto Tiglao, a presidential spokesman, said: "This could be a move to embarrass the president while she is in the United States, to project an image that she's not in control or the armed forces are not in control." The government is holding separate talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which broke away from the MNLF in the 1980s.
The raids follow recent attacks by Marxist New People's Army rebels on 10 Philippine communication transmission centres in which 18 soldiers were killed.
Meanwhile, government forces have launched a concerted offensive against the Muslim extremist Abu Sayyaf group, which is now holding an American couple and a Filipino nurse in the jungle of Basilan island, north of Jolo.Reuse content