A key Filipino terrorist suspect wanted by the U.S. for deadly bomb attacks may have joined a new rebel faction that split from the Philippines' largest Muslim insurgent group, officials and rebels said Thursday.
Moro Islamic Liberation Front spokesman Von Al Haq said his group has received information that Abdul Basit Usman has been seen in the southern Philippines with the forces of Ameril Umbra Kato, the breakaway guerrilla who vowed to carry on the battle for a separate Muslim homeland.
Usman is wanted in the Philippines for his alleged role in a series of bombings and links to the Southeast Asian militant network Jemaah Islamiyah.
Washington added Usman, who is also sought by Philippine authorities for bombings and attacks on Christian communities, to its list of most-wanted terrorists in 2008 and offered a $1 million reward for his killing or capture.
Usman, notorious for his bomb-making skills, was trained by the main Moro rebel group but was expelled in the mid-2000 after an investigation showed he carried out unauthorized bomb attacks and had links with Jemaah Islamiyah militants, Al Haq told The Associated Press.
"It's very clear that the MILF renounces terrorism and pursues peace talks with the government," Al Haq said. "If a member deviates from that, he will be removed, however skilled he is."
Al Haq represented the rebels in a joint cease-fire committee with the government from 2005 to 2008 and dealt with the issue of Usman when the rebel group's central committee decided to remove him.
A Philippine official said that during recent peace talks with the rebels in Malaysia, government negotiators relayed their concern over Usman's reported links with Kato's forces. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The rebels have been fighting for Muslim minority self-rule in the predominantly Christian nation for decades. They have recently given up seeking a separate homeland in exchange for broad autonomy.
Kato said he split from the group because its talks with the Philippine government were going nowhere and that some of his former comrades were involved in ransom kidnappings and illegal drugs trade. The main Moro rebel group has denied his claims.
They have removed Kato after failing to woo him and his fighters back. The rebels say they remain open to Kato's return although warned him against engaging in accusations that undermine the rebel organization.
Kato acknowledged in a recent telephone interview with The AP that he knew Usman but said Usman was not with his new group and had remained with the main Moro rebel organization.
Government troops have been reportedly deployed near Kato's mountain stronghold in southern Maguindanao province.
Chief government negotiator Marvic Leonen said the troop movements "were normal deployments" that were coordinated with the main rebel group and in accordance with an existing cease-fire.
He did not say what was the objective of the troop deployments.