43 Philippine police killed by Muslim rebels while hunting bomb makers

43 Philippine police killed by Muslim rebels while hunting bomb makers
# 27 January 2015 18:58 (UTC +04:00)

Baku-APA. Forty-three elite police commandos were killed by Muslim insurgents in the southern Philippines Sunday, when they were ambushed while pursuing "high value" terrorist bomb makers, APA reports quoting CNN.

The commandos, members of the elite Special Action Force (SAF) unit of the Philippine National Police, were killed in a firefight that raged for 12 hours in Mamasapano town, Maguindanao Province, said police deputy director general Leonardo Espina.

Eleven police commandos had also been wounded in the firefight, he told a press conference in Cotabato City Monday.

Members of both the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), with whom the government has signed a peace agreement, and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), with whom it has not, were involved in the firefight, officials and rebel groups said.

Grisly footage purporting to be of the aftermath of the battle was circulated online, showing uniformed bodies strewn in a rice field.

"This is the single largest loss of life in recent memory," Secretary of the Department of Interior and Local Government Mar Roxas told the press conference, calling for a moment of silence from assembled reporters.

"These SAF operatives are fallen heroes. They were just doing their job... That is why we salute them."

'High value' target

Roxas said that 392 SAF commandos been engaged to hunt Malaysian bomb-maker and Jemaah Islamiyah leader Zulkifli bin Hir, known as Marwan, and Filipino bomb maker Abdul Basit Usman.

The FBI says that Marwan, who is suspected of having conducted bomb making training for Abu Sayyaf and has a $5 million State Department bountyfor information leading to his arrest, is believed to have been hiding in the country's south since 2003.

The U.S. government is also offering a reward of up to $1 million for information leading to Usman's arrest.

Roxas said the commandos were retreating from the assault on their targets when they came under fire from members of the BIFF.

In maneuvering away from the BIFF assault, they strayed into territory controlled by the MILF several kilometers away, and a "misencounter" ensued.

The government had not been seeking to sabotage the peace agreement with the MILF by carrying out the operation without their knowledge, he said.

"We are hopeful and confident that this will not derail the peace talks," he said. "This was not directed against MILF, but this is directed against a very, very specific high-profile terrorist bomber who was in the area."

Espina said that it was "most highly likely" that Marwan has been killed in the SAF assault, and DNA testing was being carried out to confirm this.

But initial reports suggested that Usman had fled.

Inquiry to launch

A board of inquiry would conduct an investigation into the operation, including looking into the apparent lack of coordination with MILF forces in the area, said Espina.

Mohagher Iqbal, chief negotiator for the MILF, said in an interview with Philippine radio station DZRH that a lack of coordination between the MILF ceasefire committee and the government was to blame for the outbreak of violence.

It was a standard operating procedure that one side should notify the other before they began an operation, he said, describing the incident as self defense.

While the area where the fighting occurred was mostly under MILF control, he said, BIFF, which was also involved in the firefight, was a mobile group, moving throughout the region. "Chances are they were just there when it happened," he said.

He said his group was doing everything it could to ease tensions over the fighting, and that the incident would not have an effect on the ongoing peace process.

The Philippines signed an agreement with the MILF, the largest rebel group in the south, in March last year. The deal offered greater autonomy, economic and political power in return for the rebels surrendering their weapons and ending a decades-long insurgency.

But hardline rebel groups opposed to the peace process, such as the BIFF, remain active.

Appeal for release

Lieutenant Colonel Harold Cabunoc, public affairs office chief for the Armed Forces of the Philippines, appealed to the hardline BIFF group Monday to return any personnel under their control.

"We are also calling on our brothers in the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters that if indeed they are still holding some of the PNP (Philippine National Police) personnel, they must respect their rights and they must be returned to their mother units and ultimately to their family members," he told reporters.

Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, chair of the government panel responsible for overseeing the peace process with Muslim insurgents, said in a statement Monday that the violence highlighted the "challenges that confound the peace process."

But the outbreak only strengthened the resolve of the peace panel to implement the "Bangsamoro Basic Law" -- the bill, currently being heard by politicians, that seeks to implement the peace deal between the government and the MILF.

Hearings of the bill were suspended Monday following the violence.

"With better cooperation, we will be able to prevent these kinds of incidents," she said.