ZAMBOANGA, Philippines (AP) — Gunmen killed three soldiers in an ambush in the southern Philippines on Thursday in violence that coincided with the president's visit to the region to pledge support for a 2014 peace deal with Muslim rebels that has eased decades of fighting.
There was no indication the attack on the soldiers in the island province of Basilan was connected to President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s attendance at a ceremony with former Muslim rebel leaders in another southern province.
But the midday killings underscored the complex security issues the newly elected leader faces.
A group of soldiers was walking to replace other troops ending their work shift at an outpost in Al-Barka town in Basilan when about seven men opened fire and killed three of them, provincial military commander Brig. Gen. Domingo Gobway said.
Other soldiers returned fire in a brief clash but the attackers fled as army reinforcements approached, Gobway said.
The attackers were from a band of outlaws separate from the Abu Sayyaf, a small but violent Muslim militant group which still has a presence in Basilan despite years of battle setbacks, Gobway told reporters.
Troops were pursuing the attackers, he said, adding that the outlaws had lost some gunmen in a clash with troops in the province two months ago.
Not far from Basilan, Marcos Jr., who took office in June, spoke in Cotabato city and pledged continuing support to former Muslim rebel leaders who are now helping govern an autonomous Muslim region under the 2014 peace pact. Regular elections in the five-province region, called Bangsamoro, are to be held after a transition period ending in 2025.
“We are steadfast in our commitment to the peace process here in the southern Philippines,” Marcos Jr. said. “So we push for socioeconomic development … in areas affected by decades of conflict.”
The peace pact involves the largest Muslim rebel group in the south of the largely Roman Catholic nation, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Thousands of its fighters are in a years-long process of giving up their firearms in exchange for livelihood support as they try to return to normal lives.
However, smaller militant groups, including the Abu Sayyaf, have continued to fight the government and wage sporadic attacks, especially in impoverished rural regions with weak law enforcement and many firearms.