MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Local government officials and Army soldiers are helping retrieve bodies from the site of bloody clashes between elite cops and armed men belonging to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and its breakaway group Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in Mamasapano, Maguindanao.
While the Philippine National Police (PNP) has not given the exact number of casualties, estimates from local governments and security authorities put the number of slain members of the Special Action Force at 30.
“The bodies are being retrieved with the help of local government units in the area,” said Mohagher Iqbal, head of the MILF peace panel that signed a peace agreement with the Aquino administration last year.
Local military authorities said the bodies were brought to the municipal hall of Mamapasapano to be airlifted.
Iqbal told dzMM Monday morning, January 26, there’s also a massive evacuation of civilians in the area.
Captain Joan Petinglay, spokesperson of the military's Maguindanao-based 6th Infantry Division, said that reports from military troops who provided support for the SAF confirmed that at least 20 commandos were able to survive the carnage.
"As per report, at least 20 SAF members are alive but are still inside the area," Petinglay said.
Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas and acting PNP chief Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina were scheduled to leave for Maguindanao Monday morning.
The attacks came on the eve of the 24th founding anniversary of the PNP. (READ: Gloomy PNP anniversary after bloody Sunday)
Peace pact in danger?
The attacks – the bloodiest for SAF in recent history – threaten to derail the implementation of the peace agreement with the MILF. These happened while lawmakers were debating the key provisions of a draft law that is supposed to create the Bangsamoro region.
But some lawmakers and sectors in Mindanao are opposed to the agreement, saying it gives the MILF too much power. Some intelligence officials also said the MILF continues to harbor terrorists.
On Monday, Senator Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr suspended hearings on the proposed law, saying "we cannot in conscience, proceed with these hearings while a cloud of serious doubt hangs over the security situation in the south."
Intelligence sources disclosed that the January 25 operation was meant to hunt down a top Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) terrorist in the area, alleged Malaysian bomb maker Zulkifli bin Hir, better known as "Marwan," who is in the Most Wanted Terrorists list of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation. He has a US$ 5 million bounty on his head.
But the SAF apparently attacked an MILF base, the 105th base command, in search of Marwan and his suspected coddlers, members of the BIFF. Mamasapano is a known MILF stronghold.
When the SAF called for military reinforcement, it was the BIFF that apparently blocked the soldiers and engaged them in a firefight. The BIFF later claimed they seized soldiers' firearms after their encounter with them.
Based on the peace agreement, the MILF is supposed to assist the police and the military in maintaining peace in the area. Government security forces and the MILF have previously launched joint operations against armed men such as the BIFF.
In this case, SAF did it without coordinating with other units, said the MILF. The military on Sunday stressed that it did not take part in that operation. – with reports from Karlos Manlupig/Rappler.com