Philippine troops on Wednesday recovered the bodies of six more soldiers following fierce fighting with the country's largest Muslim rebel group that has sent both sides scrambling to stop the violence from further damaging shaky peace talks.
Tuesday's fighting on southern Basilan island between army special forces and members of the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front has killed 25 combatants and left three soldiers missing. It was some of the deadliest fighting since 2008, when peace talks bogged down and ignited widespread clashes that killed hundreds and displaced 750,000 people.
The rebels have waged a bloody insurgency for self-rule in the southern Mindanao region, the homeland of minority Muslims in the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines. The conflict has killed more than 120,000 people in nearly four decades.
Since the clashes in 2008, a Malaysia-led peacekeeping contingent has kept watch to prevent further battles and keep the atmosphere ripe for peace talks.
The military and the guerrillas blamed each other for starting Tuesday's clash and planned to protest before a joint government-rebel cease-fire committee. Government negotiator Marvic Leonen said the clash was accidental and peace talks would continue.
The military initially reported 13 soldiers were killed and 13 others wounded. Troops found six more bodies near the battle scene in remote Al-Barka town, bringing the military death toll in the clash to 19, said regional military commander Lt. Gen. Raymundo Ferrer.
A wounded soldier was also found Wednesday. Three soldiers remained missing, said regional military spokesman Lt. Col. Randolph Cabangbang.
President Benigno Aquino III called a meeting with the defense chief and military officials on Friday to discuss the military setback.
Rebel spokesman Von Al Haq said five rebels were slain Tuesday. Police reported six rebels were killed.
Cabangbang said Wednesday that the clashes had stopped and the military had asked the joint government-rebel cease-fire committee to allow them to search for the missing soldiers in the Moro rebels' Al-Barka stronghold.
Al Haq, however, said rebels from his group have reported they are not holding any captives. Several army soldiers apparently fled during the clash into nearby communities and some were shot as they ran away, he said.
"Our men have been ordered not to advance or attack unless they come under attack," Al Haq said. "Hopefully we can diffuse this with the other side."
Malaysian-led peacekeepers were trying to pacify both sides, Al Haq said.
It was not immediately clear if al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf militants, known for beheading soldiers, got involved in Tuesday's clashes. The militants are active in Basilan, a predominantly Muslim island about 550 miles (880 kilometers) south of Manila, and some are relatives of the Moro rebels.