SHAFAQNA – 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, a rebel official said on Monday.
The death count from the gun battle on Sunday was based on reports from local officials and rebel fighters on the ground and subject to confirmation, Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s chief peace negotiator Mohagher Iqbal told AFP.
The bodies of at least six policemen have been recovered Regional police chief Noel Armilla told AFP, adding that the extraction of more was ongoing.
“This is going to be a big problem,” Iqbal said, when asked how the fighting would affect the peace process.
Iqbal could not immediately say if there were casualties on the rebel side.
Ceasefire monitors are investigating the incident, he said.
Iqbal said the police commandoes swooped down on the remote town of Mamasapano in Maguindanao province controlled by the rebels around 3:00 am Sunday (1900 GMT Saturday).
They were seeking to arrest Jemaah Islamiyah member Marwan, who has a $5-million bounty for his capture and who authorities referred to by only one name, and Basit Usman, commander of the BIFF rebel faction that is not part of peace talks.
The operation was not coordinated with the MILF as required under the ceasefire, he said.
While he recognised that the incident was a setback, Iqbal said he hoped peace timetables would not be impacted.
“We are committed (to the peace process). For the MILF, the ceasefire still holds,” he said.
Philippine national police chief Leonardo Espina and interior and local government secretary Manuel Roxas flew to Maguindanao on Monday to check on the situation.
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.
– Decades-long rebellion –
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.
A peace treaty was signed in March last year and rebels were scheduled to start the long and painful disarming process at the start of this year.
“This is the first encounter between the MILF and (government forces) this year. Hopefully, this will be the last,” Iqbal 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.
After the April fighting, the government accused the MILF of helping Islamic extremists under attack from security forces. The group acknowledged four of its members were killed.
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.