PETALING JAYA - Reports are emerging that Southeast Asia's most-wanted terrorist, Zulkifli Hir, also known as Marwan, may have been cornered and killed in a gun battle in southern Philippines.
The Philippines Daily Inquirer, quoting Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) commanders, reported that Marwan and another terrorist Basit Usman may have been killed in a clash with troops near Cotabota on Sunday evening.
According to the report, at least 30 police commandos were also killed in a clash between Filipino government forces and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) troops in the first violence since last year's Malaysia-brokered peace agreement.
It quoted Mohagher Iqbal, the MILF chief negotiator in the peace talks, as confirming the clash but neither the MILF nor the military would say who were killed.
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.
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 armoured 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 3am Sunday.
Al Haq said eight SAF and members of the PNP Criminal Investigation and Detection Group were seized by the BIFF.
He said the SAF was to serve a warrant of arrest on 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 bomb-making experts from the Indonesia-based terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah.
"They were trapped and may have run out of bullets during the fierce fire fight," a police source said. He added that Marwan was also killed along with several BIFF members.
Abu Misri Mama, speaking for the BIFF, claimed that the fire fight started after the SAF tried to search the area for Marwan and clashed with the MILF's 105th Base Command.
Marwan has a U$5 million (S$6.74 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 9am.
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 are ongoing peace talks with the government," Mama said.
"The fire fight has already died down but the SAF and the military are already surrounded by the MILF and the BIFF," he 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.
He said it was possible that the U$5mil price on Marwan's head was the reason for the PNP's bypassing coordination with the AFP and the MILF.
In February 2012, Philippines military confirmed Marwan was killed in a bombing on an Abu Sayyaf hideout in Jolo but a month later, it was found he had escaped to Mindanao where he has since been operating with BIFF.