MANILA: A Muslim separatist rebel leader who sacked a string of southern Philippine towns in 2008, leaving about 400 dead and more than half a million homeless, is dead, the military said Wednesday.
Ameril Umbra Kato formed the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and led the rampage after splitting from the nation’s main rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), in anger over a planned peace deal.
The rebel leader, believed to be in his late 60s, suffered a fatal stroke early Tuesday, leaving behind an armed force of about 150 guerrillas, military spokesman Colonel Harold Cabunoc told AFP.
“We’re 99.9 percent sure he’s dead. We just don’t have the body,” he said, citing three “assets” close to Umbra Kato’s organisation.
BIFF spokesman Abu Missry Mama also confirmed Umbra Kato’s death, in a telephone call to a Manila television station.
Mama said Esmael Abubakar, whom he described as a “Middle East-trained ulama” or Muslim scholar, was elected to replace Umbra Kato.
Umbra Kato’s death followed a five-week military campaign that ended last month to flush out foreign and Filipino militants wanted by the United States who had sought refuge in BIFF camps on the main southern island of Mindanao.
Though relatively small, Umbra Kato’s group was blamed for attacking at least nine Mindanao towns in 2008, with the assaults claiming about 400 lives and forcing 600,000 people to flee their homes.
The BIFF also pledged alliance to Islamic State gunmen in Iraq and Syria last year.
Captain Joan Petinglay, a military spokeswoman in the area, told AFP that Umbra Kato’s death was not expected to impact the BIFF greatly.
“The death affected their morale for sure. But in terms of the conduct of their operations the effect is minimal,” Petinglay said, adding Umbra Kato has been known to be ill for some time.
Filipino security analyst Rodolfo Mendoza and Cabunoc said the group’s announced choice for a new leader came as a surprise, and may indicate its desire to be seen as more moderate.
Two other senior BIFF figures, including number-two Kagi Karialan and Omar Kato, Umbra Kato’s eldest son, had been expected to take over, Mendoza said.
He said the Kato son “has been very close to the foreign extremists”.
Cabunoc also said it was Karialan who pledged the BIFF’s allegiance to Islamic State fighters.”
“Our reading (of the group’s surprise choice of new leader) is that they want to avoid being tagged as terrorists,” he added. -AFP
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