Philippine army arrests leader of Muslim rebel splinter group

By Manuel Mogato MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine security forces have arrested the leader of a small but violent Muslim rebel faction, an army spokesman said on Monday. The government of the largely Christian country has been battling Muslim rebels for decades and while a peace process with the biggest faction has led to a decrease in violence, clashes with smaller factions and bomb attacks are common. The military said Mohammad Ali Tambako, founder and leader of the Justice Islamic Movement, was detained with five associates in the southern city of General Santos late on Sunday. "Tambako was fleeing when he was arrested," said Lieutenant-Colonel Harold Cabunoc, head of the military public affairs office. "They were on their way to a sea port in General Santos ... armed with hand guns and grenades." Tambako had studied in Egypt and Cabunoc said his time overseas had enabled him to build up extensive contacts with foreign militants. Tambako opposes peace talks with the government and his group was believed to have sheltered a wanted bomber, Abdul Basit Usman. Usman was one of two militants police were hunting on Jan. 25 when they were ambushed by rebels of the main Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and 44 policemen and 18 rebels were killed. That clash has thrown into doubt a peace process with the MILF, the country's biggest rebel group, and led to criticism of President Benigno Aquino and calls for him to step down. The army launched an offensive against Tambako's faction on the southern island of Mindanao last month and more than 80,000 people had been displaced by the fighting. (Editing by Robert Birsel)