Philippine troops kill 12 suspected Muslim rebels in clash that wounded 7 soldiers

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine troops killed the leader of a small Muslim rebel group and eleven of his men blamed for past bombings and extortion in a clash in the country’s south, military officials said Tuesday.

Seven soldiers were wounded in the hourlong gunbattle Monday against suspected members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters in a marshy hinterland in Datu Saudi Ampatuan town in Maguindanao del Sur province, Brig. Gen. Jose Vladimir Cagara said.

Cagara said a key commander of the rebel group, Mohiden Animbang, who used the nom de guerre Karialan, was killed, along with his brother, Saga Animbang and 10 other suspected militants. About a dozen of their firearms were recovered from the battle scene.

"This group has long been notorious for bombings, attacking army and police outposts and extortion of bus companies. We finally caught up with them,” Lt. Col. Dennis Almorato, a regional army spokesperson, told The Associated Press by telephone.

Army officials have tried to convince Animbang’s group to surrender but it chose to continue fighting the government, Almorato said.

The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters is among a few armed groups still waging a separatist uprising in the southern Philippines, homeland of minority Muslims in the largely Catholic nation.

The largest armed separatist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, signed a 2014 peace pact with the government that eased decades of sporadic fighting. A key commander, Ameril Umbra Kato, broke off from the rebel front when it pursued peace talks with the government and formed the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, some hardline members of which later aligned with the Islamic State group.

The military is separately fighting a decades-old communist insurgency, which has been weakened by battle setbacks, infighting and surrenders.