The largest Muslim rebel group in the Philippines has given a radical commander with hundreds of fighters a final warning to stop a mutiny or face expulsion, which would expose his breakaway force to possible military assaults.
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front's central committee plans to issue a resolution in the near future declaring Ameril Umbra Kato is no longer a member unless he returns to its fold, which is an unlikely prospect after he rejected calls for him to rejoin, the group's vice chairman Ghazali Jaafar said Wednesday.
Philippine officials have expressed concern over the infighting in the 11,000-strong Moro rebel group, which they say cast doubts on its ability to enforce any future accord from yearslong peace talks brokered by Malaysia.
The guerrillas have said the uprising by Kato, who used to head one of their largest and most battle-tested rebel commands, was an internal problem they were trying to defuse and asked the military not to attack him while they tried to woo him and his armed men back.
Jaafar said an expulsion will mean Kato is no longer covered by preliminary agreements the rebel group has forged with the government, including a truce that shields rebels from military assaults.
"Personally, I already consider him and his men a lost command," Jaafar told The Associated Press. "When the resolution is issued very soon, he'll be officially declared outside the group, fighting without any cause."
Kato, who has a breakaway force of between 200 to 300 fighters, resigned from the Moro rebel group last December, saying he was already too old. He, however, later formed a rebel faction called the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters that refused to recognize the current rebel leadership, Jaafar said.
Kato has also opposed the main rebel group's peace talks with the Philippine government and called for jihad, or holy war, for a separate Muslim state.
After rejecting the Muslim rebel group's peaceful overtures for months, Kato angered Muslim rebel leaders recently when he allowed one of his breakaway commanders to attack another commander with the main guerrilla group over an old land feud, rebel spokesman Von Al Haq said.
The weeklong clashes between the two commanders killed at least 14 combatants and displaced more than 3,000 villagers in Datu Piang town in southern Maguindanao Province last week, the military said.
"That was the final straw," Al Haq said. "He sent in reinforcements to his commander while we were trying to solve the land dispute by dialogue."
More than 120,000 people have died in the decadeslong conflict for Muslim self-rule in the country's south, homeland of minority Muslims in the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines. A cease-fire between the military and the main Moro rebel group, which dropped their demand for independence last year, has largely held.