Thirty police commandoes were feared dead after Philippine security forces clashed with Muslim rebels in the south, in rare violence that tested a nearly one-year-old peace accord, officials said Monday.
The eleven-hour gun battle took place when police entered the remote town of Mamasapano, held by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), around 3:00 am Sunday (1900 GMT Saturday) without coordinating with the rebels as required under a ceasefire agreement.
Police had been targeting two high-profile terror suspects in the operation.
“This is going to be a big problem,” the MILF’s chief peace negotiator Mohagher Iqbal told AFP when asked how the fighting would affect the peace process.
He cited local officials and rebel fighters on the death toll, but said it had not been confirmed and that he could not yet say if there had been any rebel casualties.
Tahirodin Benzar Ampatuan, mayor of Mamasapano, told AFP the bodies of 14 policemen had been removed and at least 16 others had been found.
Philippine national police chief Leonardo Espina and interior and local government secretary Manuel Roxas flew to Maguindanao on Monday.
In a statement, Espina said the police commandoes were chasing a “high-value target” believed to be behind recent bomb attacks in the south. He did not elaborate.
Iqbal said the police commandoes were seeking to arrest a member of the Southeast Asian terror group Jemaah Islamiyah, Zulkifli bin Hir alias Marwan, among the United States’ most wanted with a $5-million bounty for his capture.
Malaysian bomb-maker Zulkifli is the most prominent of the 10 to 12 foreign JI members in the Philippines. He went into hiding in the southern region in 2003 and has since been training local militants, according to the military.
Authorities were also allegedly targeting Basit Usman, commander of the BIFF rebel faction that is not part of peace talks.
Ceasefire monitors are investigating the incident, Iqbal said.
– ‘Not logical’ to delay peace process –
The 10,000-member MILF had agreed to end decades of rebellion in the mainly Catholic nation in exchange for a proposed law now being debated in parliament that would give the minority Muslims self-rule in several southern provinces.
The rebels were scheduled to start the long and painful disarming process at the start of this year under the peace treaty.
“This is the first encounter between the MILF and (government forces) this year. Hopefully, this will be the last,” Iqbal said.
“We are committed (to the peace process). For the MILF, the ceasefire still holds,” he said.
The rebel group’s vice chairman, Ghazali Jaafar, said the peace treaty signed March last year was the only solution to the decades-long conflict.
“It is not logical for anybody to delay the process,” he told reporters by phone.
Sunday’s bloodbath highlighted “security challenges” but nonetheless strengthened the resolve of negotiators, government peace panel chairperson Miriam Coronel-Ferrer said in a statement.
Over 1,000 people displaced by the violence have begun returning to their homes after the fighting stopped Sunday afternoon, mayor Ampatuan said.
The firefight in Mamasapano, about 900 kilometres (559 miles) south of Manila, was only the second since two soldiers and 18 Muslim gunmen were killed in a clash on the southern island of Basilan in April 2014.
Such incidents once broke out with much greater frequency prior to the signing of the treaty, during a rebellion that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.
Since the peace deal was struck, government forces have been going after the BIFF, a group of several hundred Muslim gunmen who last year pledged allegiance to Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria.