MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine security forces said a splinter group of Muslim separatists with ties to South East Asia’s most prominent militant group was behind a bus attack on southern Mindanao island that killed 10 people.
They said Thursday’s bomb blast was aimed at sabotaging peace negotiations between Manila and the country’s largest Muslim separatist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Attacks by the rogue faction — two officials were killed and a soldier wounded in an ambush also on Thursday — have added to concerns about the peace process, as talks with the new government to end the four-decade insurgency are yet to restart.
The government of President Benigno Aquino, in office since late June, said it had wanted to resume talks with the MILF after the fasting month of Ramadan in September.
Philippine army intelligence officials said they thought an Islamist extremist group linked to the Jemaah Islamiah (JI) militant network was behind Thursday’s attacks to create tension and delay any resumption of negotiations in Malaysia.
“These rogue rebels, trained under Indonesian militants from Jemaah Islamiah to assemble crude bombs, are hoping to polarise the situation there,” one senior army intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters.
“They are exploiting the uncertainty in the south due to delays in the peace talks, because most of the younger MILF field commanders are getting restless and impatient.”
Founded in the early 1990s, the goal of JI is the creation of an Islamic “super-state” spanning Indonesia, Malaysia, the southern Philippines, southern Thailand, Singapore and Brunei.
The group has been weakened by crackdowns in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia that have seen leaders arrested or killed.
Security officials say there are about 50 members in the southern Philippines, with Mindanao used as a training base and sanctuary.
Felicisimo Khu, police chief for western Mindanao, said the bomb used in the bus bombing — an 81 mm mortar triggered by a mobile phone — resembled devices used by Muslim rebels in similar bus attacks in 2008.
“It’s a signature bomb of rogue MILF rebels,” Khu told reporters, saying investigators were still looking at all possible angles for the attack. “Terrorism is likely the motive.”
There was speculation Thursday’s bus attack was an extortion attempt by criminal gangs which operate in the area, but the bus company said it had received no demands.
Mohagher Iqbal, MILF’s chief negotiator, said his group was not involved and was awaiting word for the resumption of talks.
The two sides have been in stop-start talks since 1997 to end more than 40 years of conflict that has killed 120,000 people, displaced 2 million and stunted growth in southern areas believed to be rich in deposits of oil, gas and minerals.
Editing by John Mair and Ron Popeski