MANILA, Philippines -- A radical commander of a new Muslim rebel faction warned Wednesday of retaliation if his jungle-based forces in the southern Philippines come under attack from government troops or his former guerrilla group.
Ameril Umbra Kato said he ordered hundreds of his men in his mountain stronghold in Maguindanao province to take defensive positions after the Islamic holy month of Ramadan ended Tuesday. Insurgents traditionally refrain from engaging in hostilities and government troops limit offensives during the fasting month.
Kato said his armed followers in at least two other southern provinces may also retaliate if he were assaulted.
"We have no plans to create trouble, but we have the right to self-defense," Kato told The Associated Press by telephone from his hide-out in Maguindanao, a violent Muslim region 590 miles (950 kilometers) southeast of the capital, Manila.
Philippine authorities have offered a reward of 10 million pesos ($238,000) for the capture of Kato, who has been blamed for launching deadly attacks on Christian communities in the country's volatile south in 2008 after talks between the government and the main, 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front bogged down.
The Moro rebel group removed Kato on Aug. 18 after months of trying to woo him and his men back failed. He resigned from the group last December, citing his age and poor health, but he criticized his former group for engaging in peace talks with the government that have gone nowhere.
Despite Kato's removal, the main Moro group has remained open to his return but ordered him to refrain from undermining rebel leaders with a flurry of accusations.
The infighting within the main Moro guerrilla group underscores the complexity of the Muslim unrest that has claimed more than 120,000 lives and stunted growth in the impoverished but resource-rich south of the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines.
Kato said he notified his former insurgent group in an Aug. 19 letter that he had formed a new group, called the Bangsamoro Islamic Liberation Movement, of which he was the chairman. His group has an armed wing, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, which is estimated to have between 200 to 300 fighters.
Kato, who used to lead his former group's largest and most battle-tested command, said he and many other rebels also left because of the Moro rebel organization's alleged links to kidnappings for ransom and drug trafficking.
"It's no longer jihad (holy war), it's business," Kato said.
The main Moro group has denied Kato's allegations and, in turn, accused some of Kato's men of involvement in such crimes.
Security officials have long suspected Kato of providing refuge to Indonesian militants from the Southeast Asian militant network Jemaah Islamiyah. Kato denied the allegation and said his former group allowed Indonesian and Singaporean militants in the past to train in its stronghold on Mount Cararao in the boundary of Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur Province.
The main rebel group has denied any links with foreign terrorists groups.