MANILA, Philippines - Philippine troops have called off an offensive that killed dozens of breakaway Muslim rebels and dislodged 100 others from two southern strongholds ahead of the resumption this week of peace talks between the government and a main insurgent group, military officials said Monday.
Village officials and witnesses have reported between 36 to 80 armed fighters of the rebel faction Bangsamoro Islamic Liberation Movement were killed in clashes over the weekend in villages of a vast marshland bordering the provinces of Maguindanao and North Cotabato, according to army officials.
An army officer and five soldiers were killed in the firefights, which shattered months of relative calm in the south's volatile central heartland.
The breakaway rebels abandoned the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which is engaged in talks with the government for an autonomy deal, two years ago. They vowed to continue fighting for a separate homeland for minority Muslims in the south of the largely Roman Catholic Philippines.
Despite the rebel infighting, the peace talks have progressed in recent years and were to resume Monday in Malaysia to try to iron out differences over a proposed revenue-sharing accord that would be a pillar of a larger and more powerful Muslim autonomous region.
Army commanders said they were authorized to carry out assaults against the breakaway rebels for only a few days before the resumption of the peace talks in Malaysia and the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan this week.
"We don't want the peace process derailed," regional army commander Maj. Gen. Romeo Gapuz said.
Government troops and police, backed by artillery fire, attempted to capture several leaders of the breakaway rebels in two hilly strongholds in Maguindanao on Saturday but were fired upon, sparking sporadic but fierce clashes all day, army spokesman Col. Dickson Hermoso said.
Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighters encamped near the scene of the clashes moved safely away to avoid being drawn into the fighting, rebel spokesman Von al Haq said, adding the violence would not likely hamper the peace talks in Malaysia.
The emergence of a splinter rebel group like the Bangsamoro Islamic Liberation Front Movement, which authorities say has more than 200 armed fighters, complicates the dilemma of ending the Muslim unrest that has long set back progress in southern Philippine regions awash in weapons and beset by poverty, weak governance and neglect.
If current talks -- the second attempt in nearly two decades at ending one of Southeast Asia's longest-running Muslim insurgencies -- fail to address such roots of discontent, Filipino Muslims will continue to be tempted to seek change by force and rebel offshoots, though weak and disorganized, will try to continue the uprising, said Julkipli Wadi of the Islamic Center of the state-run University of the Philippines.
"If there are only concessions but no real structural change, the next group will rise to fill the void," Wadi said.