- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 10, 2015

MANILA, Philippines (AP) - The largest Muslim rebel group in the Philippines pledged on Tuesday to return the firearms and other belongings of anti-terror police commandos who were killed by the insurgents in a gunbattle that has stalled a new peace deal for their southern region.

Moro Islamic Liberation Front leader Mohagher Iqbal told a Senate hearing in a letter read by a rebel representative that the 11,000-strong Moro insurgent group “never wanted that unfortunate incident,” referring to the Jan. 25 fighting that resulted in the largest government combat loss in recent memory.

Killed were 44 of the police commandos, 18 guerrillas and at least three villagers.

The guerrillas said they were investigating to determine the number of firearms and other belongings that should be returned. It was the first known time that the Moro guerrillas have agreed to return the firearms of slain government forces.

“I take this opportunity to inform your honor that the (Moro group) has decided to return the firearms and any retrievable personal effects of the fallen (policemen) in deference to the peace process,” Iqbal said.

Nearly 400 Special Action Force commandos covertly attacked in a marshy hinterland off southern Mamasapano town to capture Malaysian Zulkifli bin Hir, also known as Marwan, and a top Filipino bombing suspect, Abdul Basit Usman. Marwan was killed and Usman escaped, then the withdrawing police forces engaged in separate clashes with the Moro rebels and other armed groups in the region, Philippine officials said.

The Moro rebels have said the fighting was a “misencounter” because the police commandos did not coordinate the anti-terror raid with them, adding they were not aware that Marwan and Usman were hiding in their Mamasapano stronghold. National police officer in charge Leonardo Espina said the overwhelming number of rebels had no reason to mow down his men with gunfire because they were on a legitimate anti-terror mission.

President Benigno Aquino III’s administration and the Moro rebel group signed the peace deal last year. Following the killing of the police commandos, incensed Filipino lawmakers suspended congressional hearings on the legislation that would authorize the establishment of the new Muslim autonomy region under the peace accord.

A Senate investigation that started Monday showed that the commander of the elite forces deliberately did not inform top security officials, including the military chief of staff, the acting national police chief and the defense and interior secretaries of the anti-terror assault against Marwan and Usman before it was launched, officials said.

Military chief of staff Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang and other generals told a Senate hearing Tuesday that their lack of prior knowledge of the assault prevented them from rapidly providing help to the commandos, including artillery support.

Asked by the senators why the military did not immediately fire artillery rounds to scare the Muslim rebels, regional military commander Maj. Gen. Edmundo Pangilinan said his forces could not just fire blindly into a hinterland because of the risk of hitting the commandos and the innocent villagers.

“If we had fired, maybe we’ll have more casualties and more problems now,” Pangilinan said.

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