The Philippines military has said it killed 17 rebels opposed to a peace deal between the government and the country's main Muslim rebel group, in fighting which raged for two days.
More than 1,500 troops were on Thursday involved in the offensive against the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in remote farming areas of the mainly Catholic country's Muslim south, the military's spokesman, Colonel Dickson Hermoso, told the AFP news agency.
Putting an end to the BIFF armed challenge will be a big help to the autonomous Muslim political entity.
Seventeen BIFF members had been confirmed killed in this week's clashes, while two soldiers and one civilian were wounded, he added.
The assault was launched on Monday, two days after the successful end of negotiations between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front aimed at ending a decades-long conflict that has killed tens of thousands.
The BIFF is a small group of fighters opposed to the peace effort, which has carried out many deadly attacks in recent years in a bid to derail the peace process.
He said small arms skirmishes were continuing on Tuesday in three farming villages on the edge of a marsh near the town of Datu Piang, about 800km south of Manila.
Hermoso said the BIFF had about 120 "hardcore" members who were backed by relatives and members of other armed groups opposed to the peace talks.
"Putting an end to the BIFF armed challenge will be a big help to the autonomous Muslim political entity that will be created by the peace agreement," Hermoso added.
He said the soldiers were carrying out "law enforcement operations" to capture 25 of the fighters, who had been charged with a string of criminal offences, including kidnapping, murder and extortion of civilians.
Muslim rebel groups have been fighting since the 1970s to win independence or autonomy for the country's Muslim minority in the southern region of Mindanao, which they consider their ancestral homeland from before Spanish Christians colonised the country in the 16th Century.
But as the group sought a peace accord with the government, the BIFF broke away as its leader accused the main Muslim rebel group of betraying Muslims' quest for independence.
|Philippines launches offensive against splinter rebel group
After 18 years of negotiations, the Front and the government agreed on Saturday to the final parts of a planned peace accord aimed at creating a Muslim autonomous region.
Under deal, an existing five-province Muslim autonomous region is to be replaced by a potentially larger region to be called Bangsamoro.
The accord is expected to be formally signed before the end of March.
The Philippines president, Benigno Aquino, hopes to fully implement the peace plan before he steps down in the middle of 2016, but there are many legal, political and military obstacles that still need to be overcome.
One of those is the opposition of small splinter groups, such as the BIFF.
In 2008, it launched an attack on mainly Christian towns in the south, which killed 400 people and displaced 750,000 others.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies