MANILA (Reuters) - A leader of the Philippines' largest Muslim rebel group urged the military to take precautions on Tuesday after a clash in which 20 people were killed, exposing the fragile nature of a landmark peace accord signed only two weeks earlier.
Ghadzali Jaafar, vice chairman for political affairs of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which signed the peace accord, demanded an investigation into the incident last week on the southern island of Basilan.
The head of the armed forces, General Emmanuel Bautista, denied any suggestion that his men had targeted MILF guerrillas and said soldiers had been pursuing rival insurgents who were not party to the peace deal.
The peace deal struck with the MILF to end a 45-year conflict remains shaky as other armed groups, particularly the Abu Sayyaf Group, a body on the U.S. anti-terrorist "black list", pursue armed attacks on the army.
"Both parties must know what happened. This mistake must be remedied before so it will not again happen," Jaafar told reporters.
"My message to the military is: 'Please do not disturb the honeymoon between the MILF and Malacanang,'" he added, referring to the Philippine presidential palace.
At least 18 Muslim rebels died in the fighting near Tipo-tipo town on Basilan, an island where Muslim militants have long operated. Jaafar acknowledged that only four of the dead were MILF members, while the others were Abu Sayyaf militants.
"I think it was intentional, but I don't know if they know that they were attacking the MILF," Jaafar said. "Why attack the MILF at this point in time?"
The government and the MILF signed an agreement on March 27 to end the rebellion in the south of the mainly Roman Catholic state. The conflict has killed more than 120,000, displaced 2 million and stunted growth in the resource-rich region dominated by Muslims.
The rebels promised to disband their army, lay down their weapons and rebuild communities in exchange for an autonomous government with greater power over the economy and culture. The peace deal was brokered by Malaysia.
Bautista said that soldiers at the time had been pursuing Abu Sayyaf militants, accused by authorities of kidnapping and extortion. But they ran instead into MILF members.
He said the military consulted rebel commanders in the area before mounting an operation against the Abu Sayyaf Group.
"There was no participation of MILF forces in the encounter," he said, while acknowledging that "individual members" of the MILF with links to Abu Sayyaf had become involved.
"The MILF should deal with them," Bautista said.
Family ties between many veteran rebels mean the distinction between the two groups on southern islands is often blurred.
(Reporting By Manuel Mogato: Editing by Ron Popeski)