Hardline Philippine rebel vows to derail peace

Decades of fighting has neither wearied nor diluted the resolve of the Saudi Arabian-educated guerrilla.

Manila: Surrounded by a small band of ragtag but ruthless followers, hardline Muslim rebel commander Ameril Umbrakato vows to destroy the latest peace efforts in the troubled southern Philippines.

Decades of fighting has neither wearied nor diluted the resolve of the Saudi Arabian-educated guerrilla, and he warns he remains willing to kill and die in his quest to achieve an independent Muslim homeland in the resource-rich south.

"We will not surrender. We will continue the fight for liberation," Umbrakato told a small group of journalists in Camp Omar, the base of his newly formed Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement, on Sunday.

Umbrakato declared this month he had split from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the nation`s biggest Muslim rebel group, because it had entered into peace talks with the government and abandoned its independence aspirations.

The MILF leadership and the government have expressed hopes that a peace deal can be achieved over the next few years to finally end a conflict that has claimed about 150,000 lives since the 1970s.

But Umbrakato said it was God`s will that the southern third of the mostly Catholic Philippines become an independent Muslim homeland, and angrily denounced the MILF`s willingness to accept some form of autonomy.

"The peace talks are a waste of effort, waste of time and waste of money," said Umbrakato, to shouts of Allah is Great from his followers.

At his camp -- a grassy mountainous area on the outskirts of Datu Unsay town in Maguindanao province, reachable by several hours` hike on a muddy trail -- some of his followers at first glance appear more like farmhands than insurgents.

A few of the roughly 200 who had gathered for a show of force in front of the media were barefoot, while others asked the journalists whether they had brought spare food.

Most appeared to be very young men, third generation fighters drafted by their fathers and grandfathers who had also fought in the rebellion and have longstanding ties to Umbrakato -- who says he is 65 years old.

While little is known about him, military intelligence officials confirmed his account of studying at a Saudi Arabian Islamic university in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Umbrakato claims to have as many as 5,000 armed followers but that number is widely considered an enormous exaggeration, with the MILF itself only having 12,000.

The MILF and the military say the real number of guerrillas under his command are probably in the low hundreds.

Many of the men at his camp had weapons taken from fallen enemies on the battlefield, while others carried World War I era M-1 Garand rifles with cracked wooden handles and rusty barrels.

But there was also some heavy weaponry, including M-50 machine guns, homemade rocket propelled grenade launchers and long barrelled sniper rifles, which they claimed could hit a target as far as a kilometre (half a mile) away.

And while Umbrakato`s dream of an independent homeland for the roughly four million Muslims who live as a minority in the southern region of Mindanao is likely unachievable, no-one underestimates his ability or his willingness to kill and create misery.

Umbrakato and another guerrilla commander launched vicious attacks across Mindanao in 2008 after the Supreme Court rejected a deal that would have given the MILF control over land they claim as their ancestral domain.

Over 400 fighters and civilians were killed in the violence, which also displaced about 750,000 people as Umbrakato`s men targeted civilians in Muslim and Christian communities.

More recently, members of his new splinter group were involved in clashes with their former MILF comrades this month in a dispute over land that left 14 fighters from both sides dead.

Nevertheless, Umbrakato -- for the time being at least -- enjoys relative immunity from government persecution.

The military is not actively hunting Umbrakato because the MILF has not officially expelled him, which means he remains covered by a ceasefire between the rebel organisation and the government.

An MILF spokesman said a decision on how the group would deal with Umbrakato would be announced over the next few days, raising the possibility he could be expelled.

But the MILF may intend to maintain its links with Umbrakato to use him as a bargaining chip in peace talks, according to Julkipli Wadi, dean of Islamic studies at the University of the Philippines.

Wadi said the MILF could use Umbrakato as a "loose cannon", showing the government the worst-case scenario should peace talks break down.

Bureau Report

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