Philippine army seizes Muslim rebel bomb factory as peace plan flounders

In this photo taken on Feb 28, 2015, Philippine soldiers check ammunition in Maguindanao, Southern Philippines during an offensive operation against the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters. -- PHOTO: AFP
In this photo taken on Feb 28, 2015, Philippine soldiers check ammunition in Maguindanao, Southern Philippines during an offensive operation against the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters. -- PHOTO: AFP

MANILA (REUTERS) - Philippine soldiers have seized a Muslim rebel base and bomb factory in the south, a spokesman said on Monday, as a shaky peace process with the largest Muslim rebel group presents President Benigno Aquino's with his toughest political test.

Howitzer batteries pounded positions of the splinter Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) on the southern island of Mindanao, near where 44 police commandos were killed in January.

The army launched an offensive against the splinter group two weeks ago, a potential spoiler in the government's peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

On Jan. 25, police commandos sneaked into a rebel area to "neutralise" Zulkifli bin Hir, alias Marwan, an al Qaeda-linked bombmaker with a US$5 million (S$ 6.82 million) bounty on his head.

The mission went disastrously wrong for the government when members of the police Special Action Force were ambushed by combined MILF and BIFF forces and 44 were killed. It has become President Benigno Aquino's toughest test in his five years in office, casting doubt on his policy to talk peace.

Mr Aquino has promised the MILF autonomy in a southern region known as Bangsamoro in exchange for peace in the predominantly Christian country.

But the Senate and House of Representatives suspended work on legislation for the autonomous region, the Bangsamoro Basic Law, amid an outcry over the Jan. 25 killings.

"Our troops captured an enemy camp," military spokesman Colonel Restituto Padilla told a news conference in Manila. "The area yielded a lot of bomb-making materials. The rebels fled, breaking up into smaller groups."

Spokesmen for the rebel groups were not immediately available for comment.

Sacks of ammonium nitrate, mortar fuses, blasting caps, wires and other material used as shrapnel were found at the base, Col Padilla said, adding troops also detected five foreigners in the area, an Arab and four Indonesians. "We received reports these five foreign militants, belonging to al Qaeda, have been teaching the rebels on the latest bomb-making techniques," he said. "They are with the BIFF."

Lawmakers, bishops, civil society groups and activists have called on Aquino to resign after he allowed a suspended police general to plan and execute the mission to get Marwan and his Filipino associate, Abdul Basit Usman.