COTABATO CITY - A breakaway group of Muslim rebels armed with chainsaws and guns launched simultaneous attacks across 11 towns in the southern Philippines Monday, leading to clashes with troops.
Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) attacked an army detachment, touching off gunbattles in the southern province of Maguindanao, the army and police said.
At least one soldier was wounded as sporadic fighting raged into daybreak, said provincial police chief Senior Superintendent Marcelo Pintac.
The rebels had cut down electrical relay posts before dawn, plunging several towns into darkness.
The fighting raised fears it could lead to large displacements of villagers, said regional military spokesman Colonel Prudencio Asto, and forced schools to suspend classes for the day.
"We are on defensive posture now and we will take care of the communities and the people," he said, adding that commuters were also advised to avoid passing along highways where fighting could spill over.
The BIFF is headed by Ameril Umbrakato, a Saudi Arabian-educated guerrilla who splintered from the 12,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which had entered into peace talks with Manila.
Umbrakato had boasted of having about 5,000 armed fighters, though military officials believe he only has a few hundred under his command.
Umbrakato is known to be a Muslim hardliner and he has accused his former comrades of betraying the rebellion's ultimate goal of an independent Islamic state in the troubled south.
The government has said it hopes to sign a peace deal with the MILF by the end of the year, but had asked the MILF leadership to help contain Umbrakato's forces.
The Muslim insurgency began in the early 1970s and the fighting has killed some 150,000 people as well as plunged large parts of the south into deep poverty.