Philippine minister says not told in advance of raid that became bloodbath

Relatives cry at the coffin of one of the 44 police commandos killed in a botched anti-terror operation.

MANILA - The Philippine interior minister said Sunday he did not know in advance of plans for an anti-terror raid that triggered a bloodbath in which 44 police commandos were killed.

Manuel Roxas, who is in charge of the national police, said he had no foreknowledge of the January 25 operation.

The huge losses shocked and enraged the nation and imperilled a peace pact with the main Muslim rebel group in the southern island of Mindanao.

"They did not tell me about this... I'm not saying I would have known better but I also can't help feeling I was not given a chance to ensure there was better coordination," he told demoralised members of the police Special Action Force (SAF) at their headquarters.

The SAF commandos were gunned down while on a mission to capture or kill Malaysian bombmaker Zulkifli bin Hir, alias Marwan, a leading member of the Jemaah Islamiyah group which staged the 2002 Bali bombings in Indonesia.

While authorities say Marwan was killed, the commandos were later ambushed by Muslim armed groups - including fighters of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) which signed a peace agreement with the government last March.

The MILF said the raid should have been coordinated with them under the terms of the ceasefire.

"Your job is tough and dangerous. It is the duty of the state to give you the full support, equipment and training and not to send you into hopeless operations," an apologetic Roxas said in a dialogue at SAF headquarters.

However the minister, a close confidante of President Benigno Aquino, told the commandos to await the result of an investigation before jumping to conclusions.

Aquino had previously said he was informed by top police of the operation.

"We again appeal to everyone to give peace a chance," his spokesman Herminio Coloma said in a radio address. "Let us unite under this principle while seeking justice and accountability over what happened... last week." Coloma said a final peace agreement would require the 12,000-strong MILF to disarm in exchange for control over an autonomous region in Mindanao.

But public anger threatens to derail efforts to pass legislation needed to implement the peace accord before Aquino steps down in 2016.

The main gate of national police headquarters in suburban Manila has become an unofficial memorial bedecked with flowers, candles and other tokens left by mourners.

About 200 military veterans and serving soldiers drove up on motorcycles on Sunday, offering prayers and lighting candles.