MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines will file criminal cases against 90 Muslim rebels for the death of 35 police commandos during a deadly January clash in the south, the justice minister said on Thursday, to assuage a public outcry for justice.
Philippine leader Benigno Aquino faces his biggest political crisis over a botched operation to capture a top Islamist militant as his popularity ratings have plunged to their lowest in five years.
The demands for justice have heaped pressure on Aquino to abandon a peace deal signed with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the largest Muslim rebel group in the main Catholic country, and seek retribution for the troopers' deaths.
"We will file charges against the 90 suspects of MILF and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters," Leila de Lima told a news conference, saying the cases were based on "findings and positive identification" by a third-party witness.
She said some of the suspects belonged to a private armed group led by a political warlord who operates in the area and has links with rebels.
The witness, identified only as "Marathon", had named eight field commanders of the MILF and three from BIFF as having been involved in the killing of 35 members of the 55th Special Action Company, de Lima said. Only one member of the unit survived.
She said a 220-page investigation report, on which the cases are based, covers only the killing of 35 commandos in a known hideout of Muslim rebels on the southern island of Mindanao. A copy of the report will be sent to Aquino.
Nine other commandos died in another village.
The justice department said a team of prosecutors and investigators was given another two months to find out who killed the nine commandos, along with five civilians and 18 Muslim rebels.
"We hope that they would now give us access to the witnesses and families of civilian and rebel victims so we can file cases against those found responsible," de Lima said, referring to the MILF. The rebels denied any responsibility.
The rebel's chief peace negotiator, Mohagher Iqbal, declined to make any comment.
A report from the Malaysian-led international peacekeeping force has recommended sanctions against a policeman for killing rebels who were sleeping in a mosque.
Two other inquiries held Aquino responsible for a bungled operation for allowing a suspended police general, a close friend, to supervise the raid.
(Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)