The number of policemen killed in a clash with Muslim armed groups in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, rose to more than 40 on Monday as authorities discussed repercussions of the fighting, which involved a group engaged in peace negotiations with the government.

An “actual body count” of 49 slain PNP Special Action Force (SAF) members was tallied 11:54 a.m., according to a report from the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao police.

Some of the bodies have brought to the headquarters of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division in Datu Odin Sinsuat town while retrieval operations for others went on in Mamasapano, according to a copy of the report received 1 p.m.

National Police officer-in-charge Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina, in a televised press briefing in Maguindanao later Monday afternoon, said 43 killed SAF members have been accounted for while 11 were injured and one is missing.

Seven of the slain police commandos whose bodies have been recovered were officers, Espina said.

3 civilians hurt, 500 families flee

Meanwhile, the Office of Civil Defense-Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao reported that three civilians were injured while more than 500 families fled because of the fighting.

Tot Panangulon, his wife Samra, and their 8-year-old daughter Sara were reportedly wounded during the encounter, OCD-ARMM officer-in-charge Myrna Angot said in an emailed report.

A total of 563 families from Brgy. Tukanalipao, where the clash occurred, and neighboring barangays of Pimblakan, Tuka, Pidsandawan, and Dasikil fled their homes, Angot said.

Of that number, 66 families from Tukanalipao are staying at a madrasah (Islamic school) in Brgy. Daladap, while 497 are taking refuge with relatives, she said. 

Gov’t careful on MILF involvement

Ranking officials of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which is currently in peace negotiations with the government, admitted that members of the group were involved in the clash and defended their action.

Government officials, on the other hand, were careful in mentioning the MILF’s involvement.

“Hindi naman naka-uniporme ‘yung mga nagpaputok kontra sa ating kapulisan but in that area, halo ‘yung mga puwersa. We will know exactly,” Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas told reporters in Camp Crame.

Roxas made the remark when asked if the MILF were indeed involved in the fighting.

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, in a separate interview, said he received information that the members of the smaller Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), which had broken away from the MILF, were also involved in the clash.

“Ang pagkaalam namin pumasok dito ‘yung BIFF so we have to run after them,” Gazmin told reporters in Camp Aguinaldo.

Gazmin and Roxas, along with Armed Forces chief Gen. Gregorio Catapang and Espina, later flew to Maguindanao to discuss the situation with local authorities.

Cause of concern

The defense chief, without mentioning the MILF, admitted that the government is “concerned” on how the fighting will affect the peace negotiations.

“Hindi naman kami worried but it is a concern dahil may mga taong ayaw sumama dun sa majority, gagawa at gagawa nyan para mapansin,” Gazmin said, obviously referring to the BIFF.

In a phone interview with reporters, MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal admitted that the group is wary of the clash’s possible effect on the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL).

“‘Yun na nga ang pinangangambahan,” Iqbal said.

Congress’ deliberations for the BBL, which will implement the peace agreement signed between the government and MILF last March, were suspended on Monday until authorities complete the probe on the clash.

“Ang importante dito, ‘yung dalawang panig, ‘yung partners sa peace process, mag-usap at tingnan how to move forward, kasi mas mahalaga ‘yung peace process, mahalaga ‘yung BBL,” Iqbal said.

‘Misencounter’

Iqbal defended the MILF’s involvement in the clash, saying policemen “attacked” an MILF area.

“Lumusob ang PNP so nagdepensa ‘yung MILF… Siguro higit na isang company ‘yun, may dalawang wings ‘yung umatake… ‘yung dalawang wings, ‘yun ang nakasagupa ng MILF kasi ‘yung area na ‘yun mga 90 percent MILF area,” he said.

“One hundred percent, 1,000 percent walang coordination sa ceasefire [committee], walang coordination sa Ad Hoc Joint Action Group,” Iqbal added.

Roxas, in the press briefing in Maguindanao, maintained that the SAF conducted a “legitimate operation” Sunday against Malaysian and Filipino bomb experts Zulkifli bin Hir alias Marwan and Abdul Basit Usman.

“Isa itong legitimate operation against Marwan and Basit Usman. Hindi ito para manggulo,” the DILG chief said.

What happened between the SAF and MILF appeared to be a “misencounter,” he added.

Members of the SAF were already pulling out of their area of operation in Brgy. Tukanalipao when they encountered “lawless elements,” Senior Superintendent Noel Armilla, officer-in-charge of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao regional police, said Sunday night.

“When the Special Action Force
people were withdrawing, they were ambushed by members of the BIFF
and some allegedly, this as to be verified
and validated, had a misencounter with the MILF,” Espina said.

Iqbal said the MILF is conducting an investigation into the clash, but will also wait for the result of a separate probe being conducted by the Malaysian-led International Monitoring Team.

Marwan death unvalidated; Basit Usman escaped

Security forces, meanwhile, admitted that they have yet to validate reports that SAF members killed Marwan during their operation.

“According to reports, they (SAF) were able to neutralize one, si Marwan. Although yung isa nakawala, si Basit Usman,” Gazmin said.

“We have no confirmation but that was the report we got last night… We will validate that,” the defense chief said, when pressed for a confirmation on Marwan’s reported death.

“It is most highly likely that he was killed in the process,” Espina said

Marwan, a ranking member of the Southeast Asian terror network Jemaah Islamiyah born in Malaysia’s Johor state, is wanted by the U.S. government who offers US$5 million for his capture.

He is said to have been hiding in the Philippines since 2003 and was previously reported to have been killed in a military air strike in Sulu in 2012.

Usman, linked both to the Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf, is also wanted by the U.S. who offers up to US$ 1 million for his arrest. (John Roson)

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