The Philippine president said Friday he has ordered the hunt for a Filipino terror suspect who escaped an anti-terrorist operation that resulted in the killings of 44 police commandos, the biggest single-day combat loss in recent years that threatened to derail a peace deal with Muslim rebels.
On a national day of mourning, President Benigno Aquino III promised grieving relatives of the slain commandos that government forces will capture suspected bomb-maker Abdul Basit Usman. He said that Malaysian Zulkifli Bin Hir, also known as Marwan, one of Southeast Asia’s top terror suspects, apparently was killed during the Jan. 25 operation. Officials said a DNA test was still needed to confirm Marwan’s identity.
Although Philippine forces have battled Muslim rebels for decades, the commandos’ deaths have caused public outrage and tested the government’s peace deal with the insurgents, which was signed last year.
Several lawmakers questioned the rebels’ sincerity and at least two have withdrawn support from a pending law to implement an agreement granting minority Muslims autonomy in exchange for peace in the southern Philippines.
“As a president, even if I want to get mad, I cannot allow myself to be driven by emotion,” Aquino said. “I cannot make careless decisions. If I allow anger to dominate, rather than resolving the problem, we will just worsen it.”
Despite questions on the future of the peace deal, the government and rebel peace negotiators met Thursday in Malaysia, which hosts the peace talks, and signed rules for the decommissioning of the combatants and weapons of the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
Wearing a black arm band, Aquino offered prayers at each of 42 flag-draped coffins then handed a plaque and a medal to the officers’ families during ceremonies in a police camp. Two of the slain commandos were immediately buried following Muslim tradition.
Flags were flown at half-staff in police camps and government buildings across the country and at the U.S. Embassy in Manila. Washington has been providing crucial intelligence and training to Filipino forces and the embassy promised U.S. support to the Philippines’ anti-terror campaign.