MANILA (AFP) -The Philippines said Tuesday there was a “high likelihood” a Malaysian militant suspected of being behind the 2002 Bali bombings was killed in a chaotic operation in the country’s south that left 44 police dead.
Sunday’s offensive against “high-value targets” including Zulkifli bin Hir – one of the United States’s most wanted militants with a $5 million bounty on his head – turned into a bloodbath, with President Benigno Aquino ordering a probe into the incident.
Nearly 400 highly-trained Philippine policemen took part in the operation in the remote southern farming town of Mamasapano to arrest top militants – including Zulkifli, who is also known as Marwan – but were ambushed by fighters.
They managed to escape but strayed into territory controlled by a different militant group, sparking another firefight.
“There is a high likelihood according to the participants that Marwan was killed in the operations, but this needs confirmation,” Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas told a news conference.
While they failed to recover the body of the main target, “they were able to take pictures, and these pictures will undergo a process to determine whether it was Marwan or not.”
Zulkifli, among the United States’s most wanted militants, is a bombmaker for the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) group which staged the 2002 bombings in Bali that claimed 202 lives, and other deadly attacks in southeast Asia.
A top Malaysian police official on counter-terrorism told the Malay Mail newspaper that Kuala Lumpur was still waiting for information from the Philippine authorities on Zulkifli’s fate.
Zulkifli, described by the US State Department as a 48-year-old Malaysian militant and a member of JI’s central command who had trained as an engineer in the United States, has long been sought by the authorities.
Declarations of his death, however, have proved premature in the past.
In March 2012 Malaysian counter-terror police denied a Philippine military claim that Zulkifli was killed in an air strike.
The potential success of targeting Zulkifli was blighted, though, by the police casualties, and the controversy is already testing the 10-month-old accord intended to end a 40-year insurgency that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.
Out of 392 “special action force” police commandoes who took part in the mission, 44 were killed and 12 others wounded, Roxas said.
The MILF said police did not coordinate the operation as required under the ceasefire accord.
Aquino has ordered an investigation into the Mamasapano incident, and Roxas said the head of the force was relieved of his post pending an inquiry.
According to Roxas, the Philippine police were leaving the area where the operation was taking place when they were ambushed by the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a group accused of sheltering Zulkifli.
The police escaped but then strayed into territory controlled by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), sparking another firefight, the interior secretary said.
Regional military spokeswoman Captain Joan Petinglay confirmed press reports that US servicemen aboard a helicopter were seen helping evacuate the wounded police.
But she denied that the Americans had any part in planning the operation.
“They were on the scene on humanitarian grounds,” she said.
Small groups of US troops have been rotating through the southern Philippines for years, helping train local forces to hunt extremists.