The Philippine military said Wednesday it would continue to hunt down a fugitive guerrilla commander accused of beheading marines after the country's largest Muslim rebel group vowed not to surrender him.
The standoff over Moro Islamic Liberation Front commander Dan Laksaw Asnawi hanged over already shaky peace talks that were expected to resume Thursday in Malaysia, which has been brokering negotiations to end decades of bloody Muslim insurgency in the southern Philippines.
Military spokesman Col. Arnulfo Marcelo Burgos said law enforcement operations aimed at capturing Asnawi on southern Basilan island will continue, but stressed that the rebel group was not the target. Asnawi escaped from a Basilan jail in 2009.
Nineteen troops were killed Oct. 18 in Basilan's remote Al-Barka town in a failed attempt to arrest him in the biggest military loss in years. It sparked calls for President Benigno Aquino III to break a truce and order an offensive against the 11,000-strong rebels.
Aquino rejected the calls and decided to pursue talks, a decision backed by the United States, Britain and Japan _ countries supporting the yearslong negotiations. Aquino ordered a probe to find out what sparked the ambush.
"We will uphold the law and arrest these criminal elements. The MILF is not a target but if its members will provide sanctuary or coddle these lawless elements, then they will become legitimate targets," said Col. Dickson Hermoso, who heads the military office monitoring the peace talks.
"It is very clear that no one should be above the law and that includes the MILF," the army said.
Military officials were considering the deployment of at least 100 more soldiers to Basilan, an impoverished Muslim province about 550 miles (880 kilometers) south of Manila, Burgos said.
Rebel vice chairman Ghadzali Jaafar denied Asnawi's involvement in the 2007 beheadings. He said that under existing cease-fire rules, any lawbreaking guerrilla should be punished by the rebel group and not the government.
"They say they want to uphold justice and due process but Asnawi was denied that process," Jaafar said, adding the rebels would fight back if they come under attack by authorities trying to capture Asnawi.
Hermoso countered that the rebels were under an obligation to surrender members accused of crimes or outlaws who seek refuge in their strongholds under a 2002 agreement.
Asnawi was among guerrillas involved in a clash that killed 14 marines in Al-Barka in 2007. Ten of the marines were later found beheaded, angering the military.
A government-rebel cease-fire committee investigation later cleared Asnawi of the beheadings, which reportedly were done by four militants from the brutal Abu Sayyaf group who strayed into the battle scene and mutilated the scattered bodies of the marines, rebel spokesman Von Al Haq said.