Manila's most wanted Islamic militant killed

Manila's most wanted Islamic militant killed

The Philippines' most wanted Islamic militant, Abdul Basit Usman, was killed on Sunday, the government confirmed yesterday. But it was unclear who did it.

Usman, an apprentice of the late Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli Hir, alias Marwan, was slain by his own bodyguards who wanted to collect the US$1 million (S$1.3 million) reward that the United States offered for Usman's arrest, the head of the Philippine military told a news briefing.

"Sources on the ground believe that there was infighting among Usman's followers, fuelled by the huge monetary reward that was put on his head," General Gregorio Pio Catapang said.

Apart from the US bounty, the Philippines also offered 6.3 million pesos (S$188,000) for information that could lead to Usman.

However, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the largest Muslim rebel group in the country, claimed that its fighters killed Usman.

The MILF signed a peace pact with the Philippines in March last year to end decades of conflict in Mindanao that had killed more than 120,000 people and displaced another two million.

Usman reportedly led the special operations group of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a splinter group formed by former MILF leaders who felt left out of the peace process.

Trained in making explosives by Marwan, Usman was the main suspect in the bombing of a shopping mall in General Santos city in southern Mindanao island in April 2002 that killed 16 people.

He was tagged in another bombing two years later at a public market in the same city.

Fifteen people died in that attack.

Usman was the secondary target in a disastrous operation to arrest Marwan in January this year in Mamasapano town in Mindanao that led to the deaths of 44 police commandos.

Marwan was killed in the raid, but Usman managed to flee.

The MILF - stung by criticism that it connived with the BIFF to protect Marwan and Usman - had been helping security forces pursue Usman.

Gen Catapang said Usman was travelling to one of his camps in Mindanao on Sunday when his own men turned on him. Usman and five of his bodyguards were killed in the ensuing shootout.

Gen Catapang said the bodies were later found by MILF rebels.

His account, however, contradicted earlier reports by the MILF's chief peace negotiator Mohagher Iqbal and a police chief in Mindanao that said Usman was killed in an MILF operation to seize him. Mr Iqbal said Usman's group fought it out with MILF forces near a creek on Sunday.

Presidential spokesman Herminio Coloma said yesterday that Usman's death would boost efforts to get the Bangsamoro Basic Law to create an autonomous Muslim region passed in Congress.

Although the MILF signed a peace deal with the Philippines, it has refused to lay down its arms until the law is passed.

Mr Coloma said the MILF, in helping to get Usman, had shown itself to be a "trustworthy partner" of the government, which should assuage concerns among lawmakers who were holding up passage of the Bangsamoro law.

A number of lawmakers have refused to pass the law without a major overhaul because of the Mamasapano incident, which triggered public outrage and distrust of the MILF.

A survey by the polling firm Social Weather Stations, meanwhile, showed that nearly half of the population still prefer pursuing peace talks with the MILF.

While the figure fell from 62 per cent in March last year to 45 per cent this year, the government's chief peace negotiator said the result showed "that Filipinos consistently prefer peaceful negotiations as a more effective way of dealing with the MILF".

This article was first published on May 5, 2015.
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