20 bodies of slain SAF men recovered in Maguindanao

John Unson - The Philippine Star

MAMASAPANO, Maguindanao - Twenty bodies of Special Action Force (SAF) have been recovered from the rice fields where they were encountered a mix of members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) on Sunday.

Latest reports said at least 30 members of the police's elite force were killed in the attack in Barangay Tukanalipao in Mamasapano town, a known lair of MILF members.

Senior Supt. Noel Armilla, officer-in-charge of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) police, said the actual body count may still rise as government security forces and peace monitoring group expand their search to Barangay Tukanilap's neigboring villages.

Highly-placed sources from the MILF and local officials said at least 37 SAF members were killed in the clashes.

Six of the fatalities were officers with different ranks, according to other sources from the ARMM police office in Camp S.K. Pendatun in Parang, Maguindanao.

Local residents said the clashes erupted when the SAF members opened fire at the house of a cleric named Imam Manan, a senior official of the MILF's 105th Base Command.

Barangay folks said MILF members from nearby villages responded to the area and clashed with the SAF members.

Authorities said that 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.

Marwan is a known member of Al-Qaeda’s Asian cell, Jemaah Islamiya. Usman, on the other hand, was said to have undergone training in the handling of explosives in Peshawar, Pakistan and in Kandahar Afganistan in the late 1980s.

Muhaquer Iqbal, chief negotiator of the MILF, confirmed late Sunday that their guerillas had clashed with at least three platoons of SAF operatives. He claimed the policemen intruded into a supposedly government-recognized guerilla enclave in Barangay Tukanalipao.

The exchanges of automatic gunfire and shoulder-fire grenade projectiles forced hundreds of local peasant families to evacuate to safer areas.

Authorities said that BIFF members engaged retreating SAF members in Barangay Mangapang, a known lair of the bandit group.

Abu Misry Mama, spokesman of the brigand BIFF, said Sunday night that their members have surrounded at least dozen policemen who have ran out of ammunition.

Mama also bragged that the BIFF killed more than a dozen SAF members and their members took with them the firearms of the slain policemen.

The MILF leadership said that the SAF members entered Barangay Tukanilap without any coordination from the joint ceasefire committee and the International Monitoring Team (IMT).

“The incident was a very unfortunate, saddening development. It was a misencounter that happened due to lack of coordination based on agreed security protocols,” said Iqbal, also concurrent presiding chair of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission.

Captain Jo-Ann Petinglay, public affairs chief of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division, said not a single unit of the 6th ID was involved in the hostilities.

Combatants of Army mechanized units in Shariff Aguak have secured clearance to extricate the cadavers of the slain SAF members, but temporarily suspended their operation as of Sunday night to preclude possible security problems that can worsen the situation in the area.

Petinglay said Army officers in Mamasapano and nearby towns have also been ordered to validate the reported mutilation of some slain policemen by the BIFF gunmen they fought with.

The ARMM’s Humanitarian Emergency Assistance and Response Team (HEART) have been verifying since Sunday afternoon the reported deaths of three Tukanalipao residents who were caught in the ensuing crossfire.

The municipal peace and order council of Mamasapano, chaired by Mayor Benzar Ampatuan, confirmed that two villagers were hit by stray bullets during the height of the firefights.

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