AT least 49 police commandos have been confirmed killed in the bloodbath that occurred on Sunday in Maguindanao province in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
An 11-hour gun battle broke out after police entered the remote town of Mamasapano, held by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), around 3 a.m. on Sunday without coordinating with the rebels as required under their ceasefire agreement.
The bodies of 49 policemen have been recovered and moved to an Philippine Army camp, regional police spokeswoman Judith Ambong said.
She did not say whether any MILF members were killed.
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 said when asked how the fighting would affect the peace process.
But he and government officials said the ceasefire still held.
Philippine National Police chief Leonardo Espina and Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas 2nd flew to Maguindanao on Monday.
In a statement, Espina said the police commandos were chasing a “high-value target” believed to be behind recent bomb attacks in the South. He did not elaborate.
Iqbal said they were trying to arrest a member of regional terror group Jemaah Islamiyah called 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 believed hiding in the Philippines.
Authorities were also allegedly targeting Basit Usman, commander of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.
“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 added.
The rebel group’s vice chairman, Ghazali Jaafar, said the peace treaty signed last March was the only solution to the conflict.
“It is not logical for anybody to delay the process,” he told reporters by phone.