MANILA – 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 said.
The bodies of at least six policemen have been recovered Regional police chief Noel Armilla said, 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 3am on Sunday (1900 GMT Saturday).
They were seeking to arrest Jemaah Islamiyah member Marwan, who has a US$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 co-ordinated 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. — AFP