Dozens feared dead in clash between elite police force from Manila and Moro rebels

SHARIFF AGUAK, Maguindanao (MindaNews/25 January) — A police law enforcement operation ended in a bloody firefight in Mamasapano town, Maguindanao Sunday that left dozens of elite police personnel dead.

Dozens of government troops were killed in a “dawn to dusk” gunbattle in the village of Tukanalipao between a team from the Philippine National Police (PNP) Special Action Force (SAF) in Manila that apparently did not coordinate with local police and military authorities, and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and its breakaway, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).

The MILF, which signed a peace agreement with the Philippine government in March last year after a 17-year peace negotiations, has an existing ceasefire agreement with the government, monitored through the Coordinating Committees on the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH) and the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG) which was set up precisely to avoid misencounters

Mohagher Iqbal, Moro Islamic Liberation Front chief negotiator said, the clash was triggered by lack of coordination between the SAF which swooped down on the area of the BIFF and on the MILF’s 105th Base Command.

“There was no coordination,” Iqbal said, adding that aside from the BIFF, nasagasaan din nila (Manila-based SAF) ang tropa namin (they also engaged our troops). That’s how the bloody war started today,” Iqbal told MindaNews in a telephone interview.

Sources said the SAF Manila team of about 40 reportedly intended to serve a warrant of arrest on Malaysian national Zulkifli Bin Hir alias “Marwan,” allegedly a member of the Jemaah Islamiyah.

The United States’ National Counterterrorism Center in its website said Zulkifli, 49, an engineer trained in the United States, is believed head of the Kumpulun Mujahidin Malaysia (MM) allegedly a terror group, and a member of the Jemaah Islamiyah’s central command.

“Since August 2003, he has been present in the Philippines, where he is believed to have conducted bomb-making training for the Abu Sayyaf Group,” the NCTC website said.

Zulkifli carries a $5-million reward for anyone who could provide information leading to his arrest, the NCTC said.

Mamasapano Mayor Benzar Ampatuan confirmed that loud gunfire and explosion were heard in the inner part of his town and he immediately advised his barangay captains to keep the civilians safe.

“Two of my constituents were wounded and we are still working to evacuate civilians who are believed to be trapped,” Ampatuan said.

BIFF spokesperson Abu Misry Mama said the firefight started at dawn when the SAF Manila personnel allegedly attempted to raid the suspected hideout of Abdul Basit Usman, described by the NCTC as a Filipino citizen, a “bomb-making expert” with links to the Abu Sayyaf and the JI. A million dollar reward has been allocated for information leading to his arrest.

But Mama said the raiders instead swooped down on the house of a certain Ustadz Manan, a sub -commander of the MILF’s 105th base command under Zacaria Goma.

“When the firefight broke out, our troops were later engaged by the SAF until we surrounded them in Barangay Manggapang, Mamasapano town,” Mama said.

Mama claimed the BIFF recovered 10 high powered firearms from the slain police personnel and claimed to have surrounded the other government troops in Barangay Manggapang.

The 1st Mechanized Brigade under Col. Gener Del Rosario immediately deployed their tanks along the highway but could not engage the BIFF for fear of misencounter.

“We have no communication with the SAF in the area inside. There was no coordination with us”, Del Rosario said.

Officials of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division and the PNP in Maguindanao also confirmed the lack of coordination.

But troops helped in extricating the bodies of the slain police officers after the Malaysian-led International Monitoring Team and the GPH-MILF Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG) came.

The AHJAG is a mechanism set up by the government and MILF peace panels in 2002 to coordinate, monitor and disseminate information between and among the AFP/PNP and the MILF/BIAF (Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces) to effect the apprehensions and arrest of suspected criminal elements within or near MILF affected communities. (Ferdinandh B. Cabrera / MindaNews, with reports)