President Benigno Aquino has warned Muslim rebels in the Philippines that they must hand over a top terror suspect who escaped a botched police raid on the lairs of Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli Hir, or risk being "run over".
The warning came as Mr Aquino, under intense public pressure after 44 police commandos died in last month's raid, sacked his national police chief who, despite being suspended on graft charges, reportedly called the shots during the disastrous operation to snare Zulkifli, better known as Marwan.
Marwan was killed but one of his apprentices, Filipino master bomb-maker Basit Usman, escaped during the operation.
In a national address yesterday, Mr Aquino demanded that the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) surrender Usman.
"If he is in your territory or under the protection of any of you, I expect you to surrender him. If that is not possible, you should do everything to help us capture him or at least not get in the way of our manhunt," he said, addressing leaders of the MILF.
He added: "Let this be a warning. We will capture Usman, whatever your decision, whoever is protecting him, and wherever he is hiding… To those who have gone astray, who will interfere with our manhunt for Usman, keep this in mind: The state is your enemy, and we will run you over."
The MILF signed a peace pact with the government last year to end a decades-old rebellion in the southern island of Mindanao.
That pact is at risk after MILF fighters, reinforced by the renegade Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, believed to be sheltering the militants, ambushed the commandos sent to arrest Marwan and Usman on Jan 25.
DNA results from the FBI indicate that Marwan died in the raid.
Mr Aquino is facing his biggest political crisis: He is being criticised for allowing his long-time friend, police chief Alan Purisima - already under suspension after he was accused of corruption last year - to play a central role in the operation.
Yesterday, Mr Aquino confirmed General Purisima had played a "big part" in the operation. In a TV interview after Mr Aquino's address, Gen Purisima admitted that he provided the "intelligence packet" to commanders of the Special Action Force (SAF), the police unit involved in the raid, but he insisted that he was not the one calling the shots.
"I provided information (on) where the target was, but I was not issuing the commands because that was the role of the ground commanders," he said.
Gen Purisima also clarified that it was SAF head Getulio Napenas' "recommendation" to keep the army and the acting police chief, General Leonardo Espina, out of the loop until the plan was already in motion.
That secrecy is now widely being blamed for the disastrous raid.
General Gregorio Catapang, the military chief, said it took four hours after fighting began before army units could reinforce the beleaguered police commandos because his area commander was not told of the raid in advance.
Chief Superintendent Napenas was sacked after the raid.
Usman is believed to have links to the South-east Asian militant group Jemaah Islamiah and the local Abu Sayyaf outfit. Washington has a US$1 million (S$1.3 million) reward for his capture.
This article was first published on February 07, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.