The Philippines on Monday launched its first air strikes in three years against Muslim separatist rebels in the restless south, after a series of attacks that left 35 people dead, the military said.
Two OV-10 attack planes bombed a remote village on the edge of Payao town on Mindanao island, where Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels have been entrenched since last week, army spokesman Major Harold Cabunoc said.
The 12,000-strong MILF has waged a rebellion since the 1970s in Mindanao, the country's southern third, which the minority Muslims consider their ancestral homeland.
And while the government has been involved in peace talks with the rebel leadership since 2003 and the two sides are currently observing a ceasefire, the group targeted in Monday's bombing was a breakaway faction.
"The bombing attacks began at 11.30 am today," Cabunoc said.
"About 100 heavily armed bandits are holed up in their bunkers and running trenches."
There were no immediate reports of casualties, but the military said about 3,000 civilians had already fled the area last week.
He said a combined contingent of 200 police and military commandos on the ground were also involved in the operation.
Regional military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Randolph Cabangbang said the gunmen targeted by the air strikes were rogue MILF rebels who were involved in kidnapping and other criminal activities.
The air raids were the first against the MILF since 2008, when the military also used aircraft to bombard followers of two rebel commanders who had launched deadly raids across Mindanao that left about 400 dead, he said.
"This is the first time since 2008, but I would like to stress the (rebels) we are after are operating outside the control of the MILF leadership," Cabangbang told Agence France Presse.
The same group of rebels was blamed for ambushes that killed four soldiers and four policemen last Thursday.
Those attacks came just two days after 19 Special Forces were gunned down by MILF fighters after they strayed into rebel territory on Basilan Island, also in Mindanao.
Five rubber plantation workers and three soldiers meanwhile were killed in separate attacks on Sunday, while 200 rebels also occupied two elementary schools in remote farming villages, stealing cattle and harassing residents.
In the wake of the attacks, President Benigno Aquino has come under increasing pressure from restive military officers and critics to suspend its ceasefire with the MILF.
More than 30 years of fighting have claimed about 150,000 lives and stunted efforts to develop the mineral-rich southern region.
A ceasefire signed in 2003 paved the way for peace talks between the MILF and the government, but the truce is often marred by violence and the talks are currently at an impasse.
British ambassador Stephen Lillie on Monday called on the MILF to order its commanders to silence their guns.
Britain is a member of the so-called International Contact Group that is monitoring and supporting the peace talks.
"I am seriously concerned by the reports of ambushes by MILF members in different parts of Mindanao over the past week," Lillie said in a statement.
"The current spate of ambushes must stop," he added.
But he warned that meeting violence with violence could "likely lead to a downward spiral of killing, with untold misery and suffering for innocent civilians".
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