MANILA – Senator Ferdinand ''Bongbong'' Marcos Jr. has ordered the temporary suspension of all discussions and hearings related to the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law following the Sunday clash between the police and members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Maguindanao, in which at least 30 elite cops were killed.
Marcos, chair of the Senate Committee on Local Government, condemned the violence committed against the government forces, who were supposedly hunting Malaysian bomb maker Zulkifli bin Hir alias ''Marwan'' and Basit Usman, a Jemaah Islamiyah bomb-making expert, in Tukanalipao village.
''I decided to suspend indefinitely all discussions and hearings related to the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law until this is clarified,'' Marcos said in a statement.
''We cannot in conscience, proceed with these hearings while a cloud of serious doubt hangs over the security situation in the south. A peace agreement cannot be legislated under the threat of such extreme violence. Violence has no room in a civilized society.''
30 elite cops killed
At least 30 elite cops were reportedly killed as members of the Philippine National Police (PNP) Special Action Force clashed with the Muslim rebels in Maguindanao on Sunday.
An MILF spokesman said at least four of its members and more than 30 cops were killed in the clash that happened near the remote town of Mamasapano before dawn.
The PNP in Mamasapano said it would still have to validate the information. But in a separate interview with the Associated Press, Mayor Tahirudin Benzar Ampatuan already confirmed that more than 30 cops were killed in the incident.
Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas earlier said 26 cops were killed in the incident, but later clarified that he is not certain with the numbers, as information continues to come in.
"I understand that our men were going after a high value target involved in bombings in Mindanao. I am waiting further reports from PNP on this. I regret the loss of lives and condole with their families."
Meanwhile, in a separate interview, regional military spokesman Captain Joan Petinglay said the firefight between police commandos and the MILF happened near the remote town of Mamasapano before dawn Sunday.
Mohagher Iqbal, the lead MILF negotiator in a landmark peace deal signed in March last year, also confirmed the incident, but neither side would say how many fighters were wounded or killed, or to whom they belonged.
A source told ABS-CBN News that there are more than 30 casualties in the firefight. Authorities, however, said they have to validate reports referring to the total number of casualties.
The 10,000-member MILF had agreed to end decades of rebellion in the mainly Catholic nation in exchange for a proposed law now being debated in parliament that would give the minority Muslims self-rule in several southern provinces.
"This is the first encounter between the MILF and (government forces) this year. Hopefully, this will be the last," Iqbal told AFP by telephone.
He said the police had entered an MILF-influenced area without notifying the group, which disagrees with the peace talks and broke away from the MILF in 2008.
Marcos, however, is not accepting the MILF's justification for the clash, saying the group, by signing a peace agreement with the government, has become a partner of the government.
''I condemn the use of violence by the MILF. They signed a peace agreement with the government, and therefore, the MILF is already a partner of government. Hence, even without coordination, they should have exercised great patience and caution. Those police officers were there to arrest a terrorist. They were just doing their jobs. It was not an attack on the MILF. Lethal force was clearly not necessary,'' the senator said.
''I am anxious to hear from the MILF leadership as to how we move forward from this. This MILF attack on government forces is a major obstacle to the long and lasting peace we have been working for in Muslim Mindanao. I am greatly saddened by this terrible event. I pray we find a way forward.''
Both Iqbal and Petinglay said a joint government-MILF ceasefire committee and a small international monitoring team of soldiers and police from Malaysia and other countries had arrived in the area by the afternoon to "disengage" the two groups.
The clash in Mamasapano was only the second since two soldiers and 18 Muslim gunmen were killed in a clash in Basilan in April 2014.
Such incidents once broke out with much greater frequency prior to the signing of the treaty, during a rebellion that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.
After the April fighting, the government accused the MILF of helping Islamic extremists under attack from security forces. The group acknowledged four of its members were killed.
Since the peace deal was struck, government forces have been going after the BIFF, a group of several hundred Muslim gunmen who last year pledged allegiance to Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria.
Pursuit ops underway
PNP officer-in-charge Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina said pursuit operations are now underway against those figured in the encounter with the government troops.
"Operational information from the field are still sketchy at the moment but what we know so far is that there is an ongoing operation in the area against a high-value target believed to be behind the recent spate of bombings in Central Mindanao," Espina said.
"I have instructed police commanders in the area to make available all support systems to contain the situation and mitigate the effects on civilian communities in the area."