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PNP: 43 cops dead, 1 missing in Mamasapano ‘misencounter’

At least 43 police officers from the elite Special Action Force (SAF) of the Philippine National Police were confirmed dead from an 11-hour firefight with members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in Mamasapano, Maguindanao on Sunday, PNP officer-in-charge Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina said.
In a press conference in North Cotabato, Espina confirmed that as of Monday afternoon, the PNP has retrieved 43 bodies of police officers from the clash site.

Espina said 11 policemen were wounded from the clash while one SAF member remained missing. No information was given on the casualty count from among the Muslim rebels.

In exclusive interview aired on GMA News' "24 Oras," one of the police officers that survived the encounter said he saw rebels shooting his fellow policemen at close range and taking their uniforms and night vision goggles.
“We have counted the bodies of 43 casualties, seven of whom are commissioned officers, the rest of 36 are non-commissioned officers,” Espina said.

Agence France-Presse quoted regional police spokesperson Judith Ambong as saying the bodies of 49 policemen were recovered.
The PNP chief said the bodies of the police fatalities were already brought to the military headquarters in Camp Siongco in Maguindanao for forensic examination and proper identification.
“We continue to do the most important thing, to get the bodies and bring them to the families...All benefits and state honors will be given to the families of our policemen,” Espina said.
Espina said 392 SAF troopers participated in the police operation, which started at 10 p.m. on Saturday.

Hearings suspended

The clash that government officials called a misencounter threw a monkey wrench on the peace process with the MILF, almost a year after the government and the Moro group signed a historic peace agreement in March 2014.

Both houses of Congress are conducting hearings on the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law, the framework of the political entity agreed on by the two sides under the peace pact. The Senate and House committees suspended their proceedings on Monday following the Mamasapano clash.
“I decided to suspend indefinitely all discussions and hearings related to the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law until this is clarified." said Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the chair of the Senate Committee on Local Government.
"We cannot, in conscience, proceed with these hearings while a cloud of serious doubt hangs over the security situation in the south. A peace agreement cannot be legislated under the threat of such extreme violence. Violence has no room in a civilized society," he added.
“Certainly, the deaths of policemen and innocent civilians sets back everything because how can we just proceed with [discussing the Bangsamoro Basic Law] while these deaths  are happening?” said Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez, the chairman of the House ad hoc committee on the Bangsamoro.

In an interview, MILF vice chairman for political affairs Ghadzali Jaafar said delaying the passage of the BBL would be "a disadvantage to all parties concerned."
"I don't think it will affect discussions of the BBL, I don't think this should delay the process," Jaafar said.

High-value targets
The PNP-SAF reportedly launched the operation in order to serve an arrest warrant against Jemaah Islamiyah leader Zulkifli bin Hir also known as Commander Marwan and whose presence had been confirmed in the area.
Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas said the SAF operation also aimed to arrest Abu Sayyaf leader Abdul Bassit Usman.

Espina said Marwan was reportedly killed in the operation but added that authorities were still verifying the information through DNA testing on one of the bodies recovered.
Marwan is one of the most wanted JI leaders operating in Southeast Asia. He was believed to be involved in several bombing and terror attacks in Mindanao involving the JI-assisted Abu Sayyaf group.

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has recently offered a $5-million bountry for his capture.
Meanwhile, foreign-trained bomb maker Abdul Bassit Usman is a Filipino rebel with the Abu Sayyaf group. He is also believed to have links with JI and the Islamic extremist group, al-Qaeda. The US FBI has offered a $1-million bountry for his capture.

Legitimate operation
Roxas maintained that the SAF operation was legal and was planned for several months, and was in no way aimed to sabotage the ongoing peace process between the government and the MILF.
“Ito ay isang lehitimong law enforcement action sa paghahanap kay Marwan at Basit Usmad...We will not give you details kung paano nalaman itong dalawang target na ito, as for now yan ang basehan ng engkwentro na nangyari,” Roxas said.
He maintained that the government remains committed to the peace process and that what happened with the SAF troops and the MILF rebels was a “misencounter”.
“Inaasahan namin na sa pag-uusap ng negotiating panel ng pamahalaan at pamunuan ng MILF, naparating na hindi ito kabahagi ng pananabotahe sa usapin ng kapayapaan. Ito ay isang misecnounter lamang, umiiwas ang SAF sa pag-atake sa kanila ng BIFF,” Roxas said.
The BIFF is a splinter group from the MILF.
Roxas explained that the SAF troopers, while maneuvering away from the BIFF rebels, got lost in the MILF territory, which eventually led into another firefight.

No coordination
MILF chief peace negotiator Mohagher Iqbal, earlier said the SAF operatives did not coordinate with the MILF before conducting the operation. Iqbal said the SAF men were also the first to engage the MILF troops in a firefight.
The 10,000-strong MILF, the main Muslim rebel group in the south, signed a peace treaty with the government in March last year. 
The BIFF, composed of several hundred Muslim gunmen, was not part of the deal.
Under the ceasefire agreement between the MILF and the government, any military operation in Mindanao must be coordinated with the MILF. 
President Benigno Aquino ordered an investigation into the incident, a major test of the accord intended to end a 40-year insurgency that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.
The MILF said police did not coordinate with them on the operation as required under the ceasefire accord.
"There will be an impact but we are hopeful and confident that this will not derail the peace talks," Roxas said.
He said Zulkifli was believed killed based on pictures from the encounter site, but his body had not been recovered or positively identified.
The Malaysian is the most prominent of the 10 to 12 foreign JI members believed hiding in the Philippines. He slipped into the southern region in 2003 and has since been training local militants, according to the military.

Marwan, Usman

Espina said they are still verifying the report that Marwan was killed by the SAF operatives during the encounter.
Usman, meanwhile, was believed to have escaped.
“It is more likely that he (Marwan) was killed in the process. But we still need to verify that information,” Espina said.
Espina said there was one body recovered from the encounter site which was believed to be of Marwan's, but the body still needed to undergo DNA testing.
“May proseso pa tayo ng DNA, mahirap kasi kung di kumpleto ang ating proseso,” Espina said.
In February 2012, there were also reports that Marwan was already killed by the military in a US-assisted airstrike in Jolo Island in Sulu but the report was later proven false. —with reports from Agence France PresseNB/JDS, GMA News