MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Christmas attacks by Muslim rebels in Christian villages in the southern Philippines left at least 14 people dead and may have been partly influenced by the notoriety of the Islamic State group, officials said Saturday.
The dead included nine Christian villagers separately gunned down by Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighter insurgents and at least five rebels killed by government forces in clashes in three provinces on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, said regional military spokeswoman Capt. Joan Petinglay.
About 200 rebels took part in at least eight attacks on Thursday and Friday, Petinglay said by phone. She said the military learned about the impending attacks and secured towns and villages and warned villagers not to venture out, preventing a larger number of casualties.
“We learned that the BIFF had plans to attack civilians and our detachments so we went on heightened alert even before Christmas,” Petinglay said. “That prevented the rebels from attacking villages and inflicting more casualties.”
Despite warnings from the military, five farmers went to their farms Thursday to spray insecticide on their crops in Maguindanao province and were captured and gunned down by the rebels, she said.
In a nearby village in Esperanza town in Sultan Kudarat province, rebels fleeing from army troops took a family hostage on Thursday, freeing a mother and her child but killing three men. A village official was also gunned down by the militants late Thursday in a village in North Cotabato province.
Villagers in one area hid in a Roman Catholic church after word of the rebel assaults spread, Petinglay said.
At least four rebels died in a clash when they assaulted a military outpost in Esperanza town on Thursday, sparking a gunbattle, the military said. One other wounded rebel was reported to have died in a village clinic, according to Petinglay.
Two homemade bombs were left by the militants in a jungle trail where pursuing army troops would pass, but the soldiers found the explosives, she said.
The hard-line rebels broke off from the larger Moro Islamic Liberation Front several years ago when they opposed the latter’s decision to hold peace talks with the Philippine government, opting to continue to fight for a separate homeland in the south for minority Muslims in the predominantly Catholic Philippines.
A Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighter spokesman said last year that his group supports Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq.
Government peace talks negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer said the breakaway rebels may have carried out the attacks to ride on the restiveness fostered by the Islamic State group and to exploit delays in the enforcement of a peace deal signed by the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front last year.
“They’re riding on the ferment of (the Islamic State) and, second, they see uncertainties precisely because of the delay and they want to generate some momentum,” Ferrer told The Associated Press.
The latest attacks were the most brazen by the breakaway rebels since a military offensive against their group left more than 100 gunmen dead early this year. The rebel faction still has about 100 armed fighters who may have been joined by relatives and new recruits to stage the attacks, the military said.
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press.