President Benigno Aquino III said Thursday he would not resort to ordering an army offensive against Muslim guerrillas who killed 19 army soldiers in the southern Philippines despite a clamor for tougher government action.
Tuesday's intense fighting on southern Basilan island between army special forces and members of the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front killed 25 combatants, including six guerrillas. 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.
A cease-fire guarded by a Malaysia-led peacekeeping contingent had held until Tuesday.
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.
The military and the guerrillas accused each other of instigating Tuesday's clash. Both planned to protest before a government-rebel truce committee.
Army officials, angered by their heavy loss, also publicly disagreed with officials handling peace talks with the Moro rebels. Government negotiator Marvic Leonen said the clash was accidental and peace talks would proceed.
"Maybe in his perspective that was a misencounter because he doesn't treat the rebels anymore as enemies," army spokesman Col. Antonio Parlade told DZRH radio.
Parlade said six of the soldiers ran out of ammunition while the gunbattle raged and were taken captive by the guerrillas. They were later found dead with hack wounds, sparking anger in the 120,000-strong military.
"Our soldiers are mourning, they're not talking but we could feel their anger," he said.
Government officials should temporarily lift the cease-fire in Basilan and allow troops to hunt down the insurgents, Parlade said. The predominantly Muslim island is about 550 miles (880 kilometers) south of Manila.
Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, a former defense chief, said the government should suspend talks if the country's largest Muslim rebel group would not surrender their fighters behind the killing of the troops.
"They better break it up and conduct an operation unless the rebels surrender those people," Enrile said. "What peace talks are we talking about when they're engaging us in combat?"
Aquino, however, said that breaking a truce with the rebels and resuming outright war would not benefit anyone.
"Are we advocating 'let's go all out war' and that redounds to an improvement in the situation?" Aquino asked. "We should learn, nobody benefits in war," he said.
Aquino condoled with the families of the soldiers and called for a meeting on Friday with his defense chief and top generals to discuss why the army incurred heavy losses in Al-Barka, where 10 marines were beheaded by militants in 2007.
British Ambassador Stephen Lillie, whose country supports the talks, said all steps should be taken to prevent more clashes. The Al-Barka fighting displaced more than 3,000 villagers.
"Incidents like this underline the urgency of a political solution to the conflict," Lillie said.
Malaysian-brokered peace talks between the rebels and the government received a major boost in August when Aquino met rebel chairman Al Haj Murad Ibrahim in Tokyo to bolster the talks.
The rebels, however, rejected a government proposal for Muslim autonomy when talks resumed a few weeks later but they vowed to continue with the talks.
Associated Press writer Oliver Teves contributed to this report.