MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippine president has warned that the collapse of a peace deal with the country's largest Muslim rebel group would abet terrorism and fresh violence after criticism of the accord followed the killing of 44 police commandos in what authorities said was an accidental clash with the guerrillas.
President Benigno Aquino III called Wednesday for continued support for the pact with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, but added he also expected the insurgent group to help authorities identify the rebels who killed the elite police commandos and recover their firearms and belongings.
The Muslim autonomy deal signed last March stands to be one of the legacies of Aquino, whose six-year term ends next year. He was treading on delicate grounds when he spoke about the police killings — the government's biggest single-day combat loss in recent memory — in a nationally televised address late Wednesday.
"If the peace process were derailed, how many more graves would we have to dig?" Aquino asked.
He cited a decision by at least two senators to withdraw support for a proposal in the peace deal to establish a more powerful autonomous region for minority Muslims in the south of the predominantly Roman Catholic nation. The Moro rebels have agreed to embrace autonomy instead of a separate Muslim homeland after years of Malaysian-brokered peace talks.
"If this law is kept from being passed at the soonest possible time, the peace process will be derailed," Aquino warned.
"If that happens, we cannot hope for anything but the same results: Citizens who take to the mountains after losing hope. ... It would be as if we helped Marwan and Usman to reach their goals," he said, referring to the top Malaysian and Filipino terror suspects who were targeted in Sunday's police raid.
The fierce fighting that ensued in southern Mamasapano town ended in the deaths of 44 police commandos and the wounding of 13 others.
The flag-draped coffins bearing the bodies of 42 of the 44 policemen were flown Thursday to Manila, where top government, police and military officials stood in mourning. Close family members, including children, wept, as pallbearers carried the coffins. They will be given state honors Friday by officials led by Aquino.
While he declared a national day of mourning on Friday for the slain police forces, Aquino suggested there were possible lapses in the dangerous assault that was now under investigation.
Moro rebel leaders have accused the police of failing to coordinate Sunday's assault with them as required under a longstanding cease-fire, resulting in an accidental clash between the commandos and armed rebels in Mamasapano, long inhabited by the guerrillas and other insurgents.
Moro rebel leader Al Had Murad stressed his 11,000-strong armed group remained fully committed to the peace pact and added the guerrillas are investigating Sunday's clash.
"An enduring peace and justice remain to be our primary objective," Murad said and urged the government to follow agreements and arrangements that have halted major fighting. "It is unfortunate but not entirely surprising that when parties do not follow established protocols lives are placed in harm's way," he said.
The fighting erupted Sunday as the commandos barged into a remote marshland area off Mamasapano in Maguindanao province to hunt down Malaysian Zulkifli bin Hir, or Marwan, one of Southeast Asia's most-wanted terror suspects, and a top Filipino terror suspect, Abdul Basit Usman.
Aquino said Marwan was apparently killed. But as the police forces withdrew they got entangled in a clash with at least two different groups of armed men, including the Moro rebels, Interior Secretary Mar Roxas and the police said.
Aquino's peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, along with a cease-fire, have virtually ended major fighting in the south in the last four years. The decades-old Muslim separatist insurrection has left about 150,000 dead and blocked progress in the country's most destitute regions.
Associated Press writers Teresa Cerojano and Oliver Teves contributed to this report.