MANILA, Philippines (9th UPDATE) – The Philippine National Police (PNP) confirmed on Sunday night, January 25, that members of its elite Special Action Force (SAF) were killed in clashes with Muslim rebels in Mamasapano, Maguindanao.
Acting PNP chief Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina said that "some police commandos" were killed in a series of clashes that began in the early hours of Sunday, but did not give details. "We mourn the loss of some police commandos of the PNP-SAF who offered the supreme sacrifice for peace," he said in a statement released shortly past 9 pm.
Local officials earlier said at least 27 were killed.
Captain Joan Petinglay, spokesperson of the military's Maguindanao-based 6th Infantry Division, said government troops are presently extricating casualties.
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which signed a peace pact with the Aquino government, said 5 of its members were also killed when police commandos ran into their camp while searching for members of the breakaway Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).
"I extend my deepest sympathy to the orphaned families of our fallen policemen," Espina said. "They died a meaningful death on the side of justice and righteousness. They did not die in vain."
Espina did not elaborate, citing "sketchy" information from the field. "What we know so far is that there is an ongoing operation in the area against a high-value target believed to be behind the recent spate of bombings in Central Mindanao," he added.
Initial reports on Sunday noon from two Rappler sources said that the SAF teams conducted "law enforcement operations against [a] high value target" in Mamasapano town, Maguindanao, at 2:30 am Sunday. The SAF troops were backed up by policemen from the regional headquarters of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
Local officials said at least 27 SAF members killed and 8 were missing, citing eyewitnesses' accounts. The local officials' sources are residents of the towns of Mamasapano, Shariff Aguak, Datu Abdullah Sangki and Datu Piang.
“There are still ongoing efforts to extricate the fatalities from the scene of the encounter,” a municipal councilor, who asked not to be identified, told reporters past 6 pm Sunday.
The military also confirmed there were casualties but did not say how many.
"The AFP helped the PNP in extricating police casualties of this morning's encounter while the PNP conducted operations against lawless elements and in carrying out a warrant of arrest," said Lt Col Harold Cabunoc, head of the military's public affairs office, in a statement past 7 pm. "No military units were involved in the fighting," he stressed.
Encounter with MILF
Mohagher Iqbal, the lead MILF negotiator in a landmark peace deal signed in March last year with the Aquino government, confirmed the incident, but neither side would say how many fighters were wounded or killed, or to whom they belonged.
"This is the first encounter between the MILF and (government forces) this year. Hopefully, this will be the last," Iqbal told Agence France-Presse by telephone.
He said the police had entered an MILF-influenced area without notifying the group first, while searching for members of the BIFF, which disagrees with the peace talks and broke away from the MILF in 2008.
"They (police) ran into an MILF force. The ceasefire monitors are now in the area," Iqbal added.
Espina said they will evaluate what happened. "The priority concern at the moment is the medical evacuation and treatment of the wounded and extraction of the casualties from the battle zone," the acting PNP chief said.
How many dead?
There are conflicting accounts on the exact number of dead.
A senior military officer told Rappler past 6 pm Sunday that 32 SAF members were killed.
Reports reaching the office of Interior and Local Government Secretary said there were 26 SAF casualties.
Initial reports on Sunday noon from two Rappler sources said that as of 7:30 am, at least one SAF member was wounded. "There was [a] heavy firefight and the SAF troopers suffered casualties," the same reports added.
The PNP asked for reinforcement from the military.
By 1 pm, a senior PNP official told Rappler that 11 SAF members were already killed.
Petinglay, spokesman of the military's Maguindanao-based 6th Infantry Division, said military vehicles were deployed near the encounter site but said it's not clear if they were able to get in.
As of 3 pm, the SAF teams remained trapped in Barangay Tukanalipao, Mamasapano, according to a police report sent via text message to reporters.
Mamasapano is where many members of the MILF and the BIFF live.
The BIFF broke away from the MILF to protest the latter's peace negotiations with the Aquino government. The negotiations led to the signing of a peace agreement between the government and the MILF last year.
On Sunday afternoon, Abu Misry Mama, spokesman of the BIFF, said that the BIFF's 1st Brigade intercepted the reinforcement from the military at around 9 am.
The BIFF recovered at least 10 rifles, a baby Armalite, 4 M16s, 1 Bushmaster, 2 baby Armalites with M203 grenade launchers, 1 M16 with M203 grenade launcher and another long firearm, Mama said.
"We were shocked when the SAF attacked the 105th Base Command of the MILF because there is an ongoing peace talks with the government," Mama said.
"The firefight has already died down for hours but the SAF and the military are already surrounded by the MILF and the BIFF," Mama said.
Hunt for Marwan
Intelligence sources disclosed that the 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.
Mama denied that Marwan is with the BIFF. He told Rappler he has no information on whether Marwan is indeed in the area because the 105th Base Command is the territory of the MILF, not the BIFF.
The site of the first operation against Marwan in Sitio Lanao Bato, Sulu
Marwan, who is believed to have been residing in Mindanao since 2003, was the target of a military airstrike in February 2012.
He survived the attack but the Philippines declared back then that he was killed in that operation. (READ: After 2 years, PH military says 'killed' terrorist leader likely alive)
Congress is deliberating a proposed new law that will create the future Bangsamoro region that is expected to have more muscle than the ARMM. But this would still be subjected to a plebiscite.
The firearms would not be decommissioned in one go. A specific number of weapons would be turned over as political commitments towards the creation of the proposed Bangsamoro autonomous region are achieved. (READ: Real peace means the guns would have to go away) – with reports from Carmela Fonbuena, Richard Falcatan, Karlos Manlupig, Bea Cupin and Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com