MANILA (AFP) - Philippine security forces have arrested the head of a small Islamic militant group who was involved in protecting one of the United States' "most wanted terrorists", the military said on Monday.
Mohammad Ali Tambako was detained along with five accomplices as he was riding a motorised tricycle on a main road near a major southern city on Sunday night, military chief General Gregorio Catapang told reporters.
His capture is part of an offensive against splinter groups who oppose a pact with the nation's biggest Muslim rebel group that aims to end a decades-long separatist insurgency. The rebellion has claimed tens of thousands of lives.
Tambako is head of the Justice for Islamic Movement (JIM), which has only about 70 members but has played a key role in recent deadly violence, including the massacre of 44 policemen, according to Gen Catapang. He said Tambako had helped to protect Abdul Basit Usman, a Filipino bomb-maker who has a million-dollar reward on his head from the United States. "He (was) reported to be coddling the notorious bomber Basit Usman and five foreign terrorists," GenCatapang said.
He expressed hope that, now Tambako was in custody, Usman and the others would soon be arrested.
Police commandoes conducted a botched raid in Muslim rebel territory on January 25 that aimed to kill or capture Usman and another man on the US list of "most wanted terrorists", Malaysian Zulkifli bin Hir.
Zulkifli was reported killed, but Usman escaped, and Muslim rebels killed 44 police commandoes after trapping them in a cornfield.
Gen Catapang said Tambako was among the Muslim rebels who fought the police commandoes.
He said Tambako was captured near General Santos, a coastal city not known for Islamic militancy, more than 100km from the farming area where the massacre took place.
His group had just three grenades and four handguns, and did not put up a fight when confronted by police and soldiers, according to Gen Catapang.
Tambako was possibly heading for a safe-house or a boat to escape the recent military campaign, officials said.
More than 65,000 people have been displaced in the fighting over the past month, according to the government.
The military says it has killed about 100 militants, although those figures cannot be verified.