MANILA, Philippines (AFP) – Forty-nine Philippine police commandos were killed when they clashed with rebels in the south, police said Monday, a bloodbath which tested a peace accord signed last March.
An 11-hour gunbattle broke out after police entered the remote town of Mamasapano, held by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), around 3am Sunday without coordinating with the rebels as required under their ceasefire agreement.
The bodies of 49 police have been recovered from the town on Mindanao island and moved to an army camp, regional police spokeswoman Judith Ambong told AFP.
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 told AFP 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 and local government secretary Manuel Roxas flew to Maguindanao on Mindanao island 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. 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 Philippine Muslim rebel faction that is not part of peace talks.
Ceasefire monitors are investigating the incident, Iqbal said.