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(UPDATE) 49 police, 5 rebels killed in Maguindanao firefight

MANILA, Philippines (Xinhua) - Forty-nine police personnel and five Muslim rebels were believed to be killed in a gunbattle yesterday in Maguindanao, said local authorities today.

A series of clashes occurred in the early hours of Sunday in Mamasapano town between the Special Action Force (SAF) of the Philippines National Police (PNP) and the alleged members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Five MILF members were killed in the gunbattle, according to a statement on MILF's website. The group said the killing of the police personnel was "unfortunate."

In addition, three civilians were injured in the incident and 563 families were affected, according to a situation report from the Office of Civil Defense Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

Harold Cabunoc, public affairs office chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), said there are no reported skirmishes between the two sides as military efforts are still ongoing to extricate bodies of the slain police personnel.

Authorities said the SAF members were searching for Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli Bin Hir also known as "Marwan," a known explosives expert, and his Maguindanaon cohort Basit Usman.

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Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said initial information indicated that Marwan was killed in the earlier police operation. Reports said the policemen were on the way home when they were engaged by the MILF rebels.

"According to reports, they were able to neutralize one of them, Marwan, although the other, Basit Usman, was able to escape. The government will do all its might in order to prevent the terrorists from moving around our area," said Gazmin.

Mohagher Iqba, MILF chief negotiator, was quoted in a statement as saying, "There was no coordination (with the MILF) and they engaged our troops nearby aside from the BIFF."

Iqbal said the PNP's non-coordination caused the fighting.

The Philippine government and the MILF signed a comprehensive peace agreement in March, 2014, to end the decades-long armed conflict in southern Philippines.

Part of the agreement is to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law, which will be the organic law for the envisioned Bangsamoro government that will replace the existing Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao by 2016.

The BIFF is the armed wing of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement which broke away from the MILF in 2010 because of disagreements over the peace talks with the government.

Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, government peace panel chairwoman, said the Aquino government was deeply saddened by the loss of lives during the tragic encounter in Mamasapano that involved members of the PNP and various armed groups, and sent its condolences to the families of those who perished.

Coronel-Ferrer said the government hopes to normalize the situation on the ground as soon as possible in order to prevent the displacement of civilians, give a full swing to the humanitarian effort, and prevent a repeat of the incident.

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