30 elite cops killed in clash with MILF

30 elite cops killed in clash with MILF

OTABATO CITY - At least 30 police commandos were killed in a clash with Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighters in Maguindanao province early Sunday, in the first violence since the government and the MILF signed a peace agreement last year.

Mohagher Iqbal, the lead MILF negotiator in peace talks with the government, confirmed the incident, but neither the MILF nor the military would say how many fighters were wounded or killed, or to whom they belonged.

"This is the first encounter between the MILF and [government forces] this year. Hopefully, this will be the last," Iqbal said.

"The clash was triggered by a no-coordination police operation," he said.

He said the police commandos first attacked an area where there were no terrorists.

"They also attacked our position, that's how our troops were dragged into the encounter," he said.

Early reports of the clash were unclear. At first, military and police officials said commandos belonging to the Philippine National Police Special Action Force (SAF) clashed with suspected Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in Mamasapano town, Maguindanao.

Later, however, an MILF official said the SAF commandos intruded into territory held by the MILF's 105th Base Command and fighting ensued.

In the early reports, Capt. Joanne Petinglay, chief of the Army's 6th Infantry Division public affairs unit, said the military was conducting clearing operations in Mamasapano, where the policemen were killed in a clash with BIFF fighters and other outlaws.

Petinglay could not say exactly how many policemen were killed. She said Army troops backed by armored personnel carriers were in the area to assist Maguindanao policemen.

"As of now I cannot give an exact number of fatalities, it was a police operation, there was no coordination with our troops on the ground," Petinglay told the Inquirer.

Later, it appeared that fighters from the BIFF, a splinter of the MILF opposed to the peace deal, were involved in the clash.

Quoting reports from MILF field commanders, Von Al Haq, MILF chief for military affairs, said at least 30 policemen were killed in a clash with suspected BIFF fighters in Tukanalipao village in Mamasapano at about 3 am Sunday.

Al Haq said eight SAF and members of the PNP Criminal Investigation and Detection Group were seized by the BIFF.

He said the MILF troops were helping the Army through the joint government and MILF coordinating committee on the cessation of hostilities.

But a police source in Maguindanao, who asked not to be named, said at least 36 police officers belonging to the SAF unit in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao were killed, disarmed and mutilated.

"We are still verifying the casualty figure, what we are doing is we assist the police in extracting the fatalities," Petinglay said.

She said the SAF unit came to Mamasapano for a "law enforcement operation against a most wanted man, a high-value target, a Jemaah Islamiyah member."

Al Haq told the Inquirer that the SAF was to serve a warrant of arrest on Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir, also known as Marwan, when the group encountered and clashed with BIFF fighters under Commander Guiawan in Tukanalipao.

"They were also after Basit Usman," Al Haq said. Usman and Marwan are bombmaking experts from the Indonesia-based terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah.

"They were trapped and may have run out of bullets during the fierce firefight," a police source said. He added that Marwan was also killed along with several BIFF members.

Roads leading to Mamasapano from Shariff Aguak in Maguindanao were closed and reporters were barred from entering the encounter site, which is about 15 kilometres from the national highway linking Isulan in Sultan Kudarat and Cotabato City passing by Maguindanao.

Petinglay said troops from the 2nd Mechanized Brigade were still in the area.

Abu Misri Mama, speaking for the BIFF, claimed that the firefight started after the SAF tried to search the area for Marwan and clashed with the MILF's 105th Base Command.

Marwan has a US$5 million (S$6.73 million) bounty for terror attacks that also earned him a spot on the most wanted terror list of the FBI.

Mama said the BIFF's 1st Brigade intercepted the reinforcement from the military at around 9 am.

The BIFF recovered at least 10 rifles, Mama claimed.

"We were shocked when the SAF attacked the 105th Base Command of the MILF because there is an ongoing peace talks with the government," Mama said.

"The firefight has already died down but the SAF and the military are already surrounded by the MILF and the BIFF," he said.

Petinglay denied the claims of Mama, saying there were no reports of firefights involving the military.

"Possibly the group that the BIFF clashed with is the SAF," she said.

Later in the day, Al Haq confirmed the clash between the police commandos and MILF fighters, saying there was no coordination done with the MILF for the law enforcement operation.

"Because of this, the SAF has intruded and clashed with the 105th Base Command resulting in at least 30 casualties," Al Haq said.

The MILF suffered five casualties, he added.

"The Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities facilitated the request of the PNP to retrieve their casualties but unfortunately many were not able to survive because they were not evacuated immediately. Hopefully, all bodies will be retrieved," Al Haq said.

He said the SAF group that participated in the operation was not originally assigned to the area, as it was from General Santos City.

"They were all new to the area and know little about it," Al Haq said.

He said it was possible that the US$5 million price on Marwan's head was the reason for the PNP's bypassing coordination with the AFP and the MILF.

"This should be a lesson to everybody not to ignore the ceasefire mechanism and to understand more the ongoing peace process," Al Haq said.

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