The Philippine military has been accused of a brazen crackdown designed to weaken southern Muslim rebels as a whole, instead of sticking to its stated goal of hunting down three dissident commanders blamed for recent atrocities. The current conflict erupted after the collapse of a deal between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the government last month, triggering an angry response from some factions of the Muslim rebel group, headed by three commanders - Ameril Ombra, alias Kato; Abdullah Macapaar, alias Bravo; and Aleem Sulaiman Pangalian. They laid siege to several villages, and at least 77 civilians were killed then and in the ensuing battles with the military. The MILF's mainstream leadership has rejected handing the men over to authorities, who have accused the trio of links with the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf and the shadowy Jemaah Islamiah network. However, the MILF has begun complaining on its website that government forces have widened their attacks beyond the forces controlled by the dissident fighters. 'Clearly, the police-military offensives of the government are no longer targeting ... Kato and Bravo,' it said. Lieutenant Colonel Julieto Ando, the civil-military operations chief of the army's southern-based 6th Infantry Division, maintained that the Philippines' biggest military operation in eight years was aimed at the 'neutralisation' of the three 'hardcore' commanders. However, he agreed that the operations could weaken the separatist MILF as a whole, ahead of any renewed peace negotiations. Kato heads the so-called 105th Base Command, where improvised bombs and bullets are made and where 2002 Bali bombing suspects Umar Patek and Dulmatin have been known to take refuge. Both Kato, who has up to 1,500 men, and Bravo, with fewer than 1,000, are seasoned fighters who claim to be veterans of the 1980s war in Afghanistan. They controlled a fifth of the 11,000-strong rebel army under their two commands, Colonel Ando said, estimating that government soldiers had killed 'more than 150 rebels'. Arrest warrants have been issued against Kato, Bravo and Pangalian, plus all the men under them, on a range of charges including murder, arson and robbery. Once these commanders are gone, 'of course the MILF as a whole will be weakened and their sphere of influence reduced', Colonel Ando said, adding that this could in turn weaken the rebels' bargaining hand in future peace talks. But going after them is difficult because of marshy terrain and the fact that they are well armed. 'Kato was one of the trusted men of Salamat [Hashim, the MILF founding chairman]. Salamat, before he died in 2003, gave Kato a large sum, which he used to buy arms. That's why Kato has sophisticated weapons - M60 machine guns, mortars, sniper rifles - and they are using landmines,' he said. Authorities saw Kato and Bravo as hardliners compared with the MILF leadership, Colonel Ando said. Zachary Abuza, a counter-terrorism specialist, cautioned in a February assessment that 'should a final peace agreement be concluded in 2008, Philippine intelligence officials contend, at least 3,000 MILF combatants would likely continue to fight under the leadership' of Kato, Bravo, Wahid Tondok and Salamat's brother, Samir. Their men are operating in the separatists' traditional stronghold provinces of Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur but are claiming numerous towns and villages in Lanao del Norte and Cotabato as part of a preliminary deal on territory. The rebel commanders have denied the charges brought by the government, saying militiamen had provoked them into attacking and civilians were caught in the crossfire. The MILF civilian leadership has promised to conduct an internal probe.