COTABATO CITY, Philippines -- Fourteen Marines searching for a kidnapped Italian priest had been killed in a gunbattle in which the Moro Islamic Liberation Front claimed responsibility for, saying that it had acted in self-defense after its troops were ?attacked? by the soldiers who entered MILF territory in the province of Basilan.
Lieutenant Colonel Ariel Caculitan, spokesman for the Marines, and Brigadier General Ramiro Alivio, chief of 1st Marine Brigade, said 10 of the 14 who had been reported missing were found beheaded.
Caculitan and Alivio said nine others were wounded.
?All troops have been accounted, for,? said Alivio who was interviewed from Basilan.
Alivio said the forces that had engaged the Marines were a "mix of MILF, Abu Sayyaf, and lawless elements."
Mohagher Iqbal, MILF chief peace negotiator, and MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu admitted that government troops had clashed with elements of the Muslim rebel group at the Ginanta village in Albarka town, near Tipo-Tipo that began at about 10:00 a.m. and ended at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. The village is a known MILF territory.
The Marines were part of a team conducting search and rescue operations for Italian priest Giancarlo Bossi who was kidnapped in June by suspected Abu Sayyaf bandits.
Iqbal said their troops had acted in self-defense against the Marines who had entered an MILF area without informing the Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH), the implementing body for the ceasefire between the military and the MILF.
"Definitely we will file a protest [before CCCH]. This is a definite ceasefire violation," Iqbal told reporters.
He said their troops in the area were taken by surprise upon seeing the soldiers and decided to fire on them.
During the firefight, Iqbal said four of their guerrillas were killed and seven others were wounded.
He admitted that MILF rebels scouring the area after the firefight recovered 11 headless corpses.
But Iqbal could not explain why the dead soldiers had to be beheaded.
"I received the report that our troops beheaded seven Marines early this morning. We are investigating and determining the identities of those involved. We have an existing policy not to harm any captured enemy," Iqbal said. ?That is against Islam.?
Iqbal said the MILF had "no information" on reports that the Abu Sayyaf was keeping Bossi in Basilan, a known bailiwick of the extremist Muslim rebel group.
Asked if there were Abu Sayyaf forces in Tipo-Tipo, Iqbal said:
"Definitely not?The government knows. The soldiers know that
[Tipo-Tipo] is an MILF area."
Meanwhile, Kabalu denied that the Abu Sayyaf was involved and echoed Iqbal in accusing the military of violating the ceasefire agreement by entering an MILF area.
"The firefight was touched off because they entered our area without first coordinating with the MILF leadership as agreed upon in the peace talks," Kabalu told Agence France-Presse by phone from his base in the southern Philippines.
"This is their fault because they intruded into our territory and our forces were alarmed and had to defend their positions," he said.
The provocation, he said, was a clear violation of a 2003 truce and would be brought up to a joint monitoring committee.
But Alivio and Caculitan maintained that the troops, who rode three military trucks, were ambushed while on their way back to their headquarters in Campo Uno in Basilan at about 10 a.m. Tuesday after another operation in connection with the Bossi kidnapping.
"One of the three trucks [got] stuck in the mud. It was then raining hard and that made the movement of the soldiers quite difficult," he said.
Alivio said the soldiers were moving slowly when fired upon by about 400 gunmen, who he claimed belonged to the MILF and the Abu Sayyaf.
"They [Marines] were surprised when bullets also rained on them," Alivio told the Philippine Daily Inquirer, parent company of INQUIRER.net.
Alivio said the soldiers retaliated and engaged the armed men in a heavy firefight that lasted for about 10 hours.
"We were outnumbered that's the reason we suffered heavy casualties," Alivio said.
"It was a very treacherous attack," Caculitan told a news conference in Camp Aguinaldo.
Caculitan insisted that it was the Abu Sayyaf, supported by unidentified "lawless elements" that had engaged the Marines.
But Caculitan added that if a military investigation would confirm the involvement of the MILF, he said the military would file a complaint before CCCH.
"The Abu Sayyaf and the lawless armed groups will be pursued,"
Caculitan said the casualty count on Tuesday was the biggest for the Marine Corps since 2005, when 12 of their men were killed in an encounter with the Abu Sayyaf in Patikul town, Sulu province.
Earlier on Wednesday, Caculitan described the beheadings as a ?barbaric act? and quickly pinned the blame on the Abu Sayyaf, which would ?decapitate their victims, whenever they have the chance.?
Bossi, of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME), was kidnapped last June 10 in Payao town, Zamboanga Sibugay province, where he had served as parish priest. He is the third Italian clergyman to be kidnapped in the south since the 1990s.
The government had said that the priest?s kidnappers could either be Abu Sayyaf men or renegade members of the MILF.
The MILF has denied any involvement in the abduction and initially helped in the hunt for Bossi's captors.
"The MILF is not involved in the Bossi kidnapping. This we say loud and clear," Kabalu said.
The 12,000-strong MILF is the country's main separatist rebel group and is currently engaged in peace talks with the government in Manila.
The Abu Sayyaf is an Al Qaeda-linked group of self-styled Islamic fighters blamed for the country's worst terrorist attacks and many kidnappings.
The Roman Catholic news agency Asianews, the mouthpiece of The Vatican, said Tuesday it doubted that Abu Sayyaf militants were involved in the kidnapping. It said it was more likely he was being held by a criminal gang.
Basilan Bishop Martin Jumoad, head of the joint GRP-MILF monitoring team in the province, said he feared that the incident could trigger more violence between the military and the rebels.
"This situation might trigger another war if no proper investigation will be conducted, we are afraid that war is coming back to our province," Jumoad said.
Peace negotiations between the government and the MILF stalled last year on the issue of territory.
The MILF wanted the inclusion of at least 1,000 villages in the Bangsamoro juridical entity while the government said it could only let go of around 600 predominantly villages.
Ramon Nunal Jr., a member of the joint monitoring team, said they believed both sides committed violation of the 2001 ceasefire agreement.
He said the military conducted the operation inside MILF areas without proper coordination.
Under the provisions of the ceasefire agreement, the military should inform the MILF before it conducts operation against suspected criminals inside rebel territories, he said.
The ceasefire agreement also prescribed the formation of the ad hoc joint action team, which will involve MILF guerrillas in anti-crime operations.
The AHJAG's mandate has recently expired and the government and the MILF have to formulate another agreement before it can resume its functions.