The Philippines president on Friday pledged justice for the families of 44 police commandos killed during a botched anti-terror operation, which has threatened to derail a peace deal with fighters in a long-running insurgency in the country’s south.
President Benigno Aquino III promised grieving relatives that government forces would capture suspected bomb-maker Abdul Basit Usman, who escaped during the operation.
The 44 men were killed in the southern Philippines in confrontations with two armed groups including the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which seeks regional self-rule and signed a peace agreement with Manila last year. MILF maintains that it acted in self-defense and has vowed to pursue the peace process.
"I pledge to bring justice to all those who were killed," said Aquino, who was sporting a black armband like those warn by police attending the ceremony.
"As a president, even if I want to get mad, I cannot allow myself to be driven by emotion," he said. "I cannot make careless decisions. If I allow anger to dominate, rather than resolving the problem, we will just worsen it."
According to officials, the commandos were on a mission to catch or kill Malaysian bomb-maker Zulkifli bin Hir, who is accused of involvement in the 2002 Bali bombings in Indonesia that killed 202 people. MILF, which was not informed of the raid, responded to the perceived intrusion, killing dozens.
Hir, a suspect in at least nine bombings in the south, was apparently killed during the Jan. 25 operation. Officials said a DNA test was still needed to confirm his identity. Abdul Basit Usman, a suspect in at least nine bombings in the south, escaped the fighting.
Although Philippine forces have battled insurgents in the south for decades, the commandos' deaths have caused public outrage and tested the government's peace deal with the rebels.
Several politicians have questioned the insurgents' sincerity, and at least two have withdrawn support from a pending law to implement an agreement granting minority Muslims autonomy in exchange for peace in the southern Philippines.
A March 2014 peace deal between the Philippine government and MILF — the largest rebel group in the south — stipulated that the group would lay down arms in exchange for more power. In September, Aquino proposed a plan to give MILF the ability to run its own government in the marshy heartland of the southern Mindanao region.
Although the deal to establish an autonomous zone with its own government and flag is still being worked out, Aquino is keen to see the deal in place before his term ends in June 2016. Despite progress on the autonomous zone, scores of breakaway groups that have rejected the peace deal have continued occasional attacks against government forces and far-flung communities in the Mindanao region.
The most notorious breakaway separatist group is Abu Sayaaf, which split from MILF in the early 1990s and is particularly active on Basilan Island. Although mainly known for kidnappings for ransom, Abu Sayaaf has also admitted responsibility for bombings, including an attack that killed more than 100 passengers on a ferry in February 2004.
The four-decade conflict in the southern Philippines is one of the world’s bloodiest, with a death toll estimated to have surpassed 150,000.
Al Jazeera and wire services