Muslim rebels attacked several southern coastal townships Monday, killing a local official and burning houses in a sharp escalation of fighting amid uncertainty over a fragile peace process, officials said.
Regional military spokesman Maj. Armand Rico said the towns of Kulambugan and Kauswagan in Lanao del Norte province came under attack early Monday from renegade forces of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
He said the rebels executed the leader of Libertad village in Kauswagan town. Government troops in armored vehicles fought the rebels in efforts to push them back into the hinterland, where they maintain camps. Local officials ordered the evacuation of residents from nearby communities to avoid casualties.
Rebel spokesman Eid Kabalu confirmed the attack, but said it was carried out by a renegade commander, Abdullah Macapaar, also known as Bravo, and without the knowledge of the group's leadership.
Rico said there were reports that the attackers took a number of civilians hostage.
Early Monday, a passenger bus on the national highway in Lanao del Norte rammed a checkpoint and a roadblock set up the rebels.
The rebels opened fire, and the driver, Antonio Aurillo, escaped into government-controlled territory, from where he called a radio station in nearby Zamboanga city, saying that 17 passengers were still in the bus and that some may have been hurt.
Regional military commander Maj. Gen. Nehemias Pajarito said the rebels in the villages under attack numbered about 200 men. He said the 125-mile portion of the highway was closed as troops confronted the attackers.
Retired Gen. Rodolfo Garcia, head of the government's negotiating team with the rebels, called the attack on the towns a violation of a 2003 cease-fire. He said government officials were trying to get through to the rebels to get them to control their fighters.
"This is an act that must not be tolerated," Garcia said.
Officials in the predominantly Christian cities in the southern Philippines — the traditional homeland of minority Muslims — have strongly opposed a preliminary accord forged between the government and the rebels in a bid to end the decades-old insurgency for Muslim self-rule in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation.
The agreement, which was supposed to be signed this month but was blocked by the Supreme Court, calls for the expansion of an existing Muslim autonomous region to include more than 700 new villages, subject to the approval of residents in a plebiscite.
The court acted on a petition filed by Christian politicians wary of losing land and power to Muslims. The justices began hearings last week to determine whether the accord violated the constitution. The issue has divided many Filipinos.
Garcia and the liberation front have been warning that many of the younger, more radical guerrilla commanders, such as Bravo, may have given up on negotiations.