(Reuters) – Philippine soldiers have seized a Muslim rebel base and bomb factory in the south, a spokesman said on Monday, as a shaky peace process with the largest Muslim rebel group presents President Benigno Aquino’s with his toughest political test.
Howitzer batteries pounded positions of the splinter Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) on the southern island of Mindanao, near where 44 police commandos were killed in January.
The army launched an offensive against the splinter group two weeks ago, a potential spoiler in the government’s peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
On Jan. 25, police commandos sneaked into a rebel area to “neutralize” Zulkifli bin Hir, alias Marwan, an al Qaeda-linked bombmaker with a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head.
The mission went disastrously wrong for the government when members of the police Special Action Force were ambushed by combined MILF and BIFF forces and 44 were killed. It has become President Benigno Aquino’s toughest test in his five years in office, casting doubt on his policy to talk peace.
Aquino has promised the MILF autonomy in a southern region known as Bangsamoro in exchange for peace in the predominantly Christian country…