MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine police have recovered at least 21 bodies of the dozens commandos who were mowed down by Muslim rebel gunfire in a far-flung southern village where they moved in over the weekend to hunt down one of southeast Asia's most-wanted terrorists, officials said Monday.
Army-backed police and villagers also helped take 11 wounded members of the national police's elite Special Action Forces away from the battle scene in and around the village of Tukanalipao in Mamasapano township, where the government suffered its biggest single-day combat loss in many years, officials said.
Mayor Tahirudin Benzar Ampatuan told The Associated Press by telephone that village leaders saw the bodies of at least policemen in a clearing following Sunday's fighting. Many of the dead were stripped to their underwear, with their assault firearms missing.
"What they described to me was gruesome," Ampatuan said.
The commandos had sneaked into the Muslim rebel community in two groups, but apparently had "misencounter" with members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the main Muslim insurgent group, which signed a peace deal with the government in March and has had a relatively successful cease-fire agreement with government troops in recent years, Ampatuan said.
Under the truce, government forces are required to coordinate anti-terror assaults and other law enforcement operations with the Moro rebels to prevent accidental fighting. But the aapproximately 100 police commandos did not notify the rebels before they arrived in the dark, Moro rebel leader Mohagher Iqbal said.
"If somebody barges into your house, what will you do?" Iqbal said by telephone.
He said the 11,000-strong Moro group would file a protest over the action of the police commandos, but added the incident was not likely to undermine the peace process, a view shared by Philippine officials.
"The peace process will not be affected because we're not dealing against the MILF here," Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said, referring to the Liberation Front.
"We are up against the enemies of the state," Gazmin said, referring to breakaway Muslim rebels, called the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, who also have a presence in Tukanalipao and reportedly helped subdue the outnumbered commandos.
Gazmin said the police were trying to arrest Zulkifli bin Hir, a Malaysian terror suspect, and a Filipino bomb-making expert, Abdul Basit Usman. U.S. and Philippine authorities have blamed them for several deadly bombings in the south.
Washington has offered up to $5 million reward for the Malaysian's capture.
Ampatuan said the fighting ended when members of a cease-fire committee and foreign truce monitors intervened.
The peace pact, signed in March, aims to establish a more powerful and better-funded autonomous region for minority Muslims in the south and end a decades-long rebellion. The conflict has left 150,000 people dead and helped stunt development in the country's poorest region.