MANILA (Mabuhay) – Tension in Mamasapano town started to subside a day after a dawn to dusk firefight between the police and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) on Sunday, the Armed Forces of the Philippines has said.
“As of now there are no skirmishes happening in the ground and our effort to extricate all the casualties is ongoing,” AFP public affairs office chief Lt. Col. Harold told reporters on Monday
Cabunoc said that as of 5 p.m. on Sunday, the armed groups who were involved in the firefight have already withdrawn from the encounter site.
“So far, okay naman (ang situation on the ground). As of 7 p.m. wala nang naririnig na putok,” Cabunoc said.
Cabunoc said members of the International Monitoring Team (IMT) and the Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH) have already arrived in Mamasapano town help ease the tensions by talking to the MILF and BIFF parties.
“Of course there are tensions on the ground, (but) we are trying our best to talk to different leaders, the LGUs, the MILF and even BIFF to diffuse all tensions and settle the problem in a peaceful manner,” Cabunoc said.
On Sunday, at least 30 police officers belonging to the elite group, Special Action Force (SAF) were reported killed in a firefight with the MILF, which was later joined by its splinter group, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).
Earlier on Monday, a police official in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao said the number of SAF fatalities had risen to 50.
The PNP-SAF reportedly launched the operation in order to serve an arrest warrant against Jemaah Islamiyah leader Zulkifli bin Hir also known as Commander Marwan whose presence has been confirmed in the area.
MILF chief peace negotiator Mohagher Iqbal, however, said the SAF operatives did not coordinate with the MILF before conducting the operation. Iqbal also said the SAF men engaged the MILF troops in a firefight.
Cabunoc said that as of Monday morning, there were only eight bodies of the SAF casualties retrieved from the encounter site, despite sightings of more bodies in the area.
“It was not described bakit yun palang eh samantalang may nagsabi na nakita na nila ang karamihan sa mga casualties. I could not speculate on the problems that arose while they were doing the extraction operations,” Cabunoc said.
Cabunoc, however, assured that the military and the PNP’s extraction operations would continue until all the SAF officers were accounted for.
Meanwhile, a report said there were already 34 bodies retrieved from the encounter site, based on the latest information from the PNP ARMM.
Five more bodies of police casualties were believed to have been taken away by the rebel groups.
Meanwhile, 11 police officers were reported injured from the clash.
In a separate interview, Army chief Lt. Gen. Hernando Irriberi said they have troops in North Cotabato ready to be deployed in Maguindanao to help in the extraction of bodies and pursuit operations against the rebel groups.
“Kung kailangang magdagdag ng tropa, magdadagdag kami, pero wala pa namang request,” Irriberi said.
He said they are also awaiting instructions from the General Headquarters on whether there is a need to heighten the alert status of the Cental Mindanao Command following the incident.
“Mag-aantay lang kami. It will be the General Headquarters na magde-declare nyan,” Irriberi said.
On Monday noon, Interior Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, AFP chief General Gregorio Pio Catapang and PNP officer-in-charge Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina arrived in North Cotabato to talk with high-ranking police and military commanders as well as local leaders to assess the situation in Mamasapano.
The media has yet to be briefed on the result of the closed-door meeting as of posting time. (MNS)