Aquino urges support for Philippines peace pact after bloodbath

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III delivers his speech in a televised address regarding the killing of 44 police officers in a clash in southern Philippines inside the Malacanang Presidential Palace in Manila, Philippines on Jan 28, 2015. P
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III delivers his speech in a televised address regarding the killing of 44 police officers in a clash in southern Philippines inside the Malacanang Presidential Palace in Manila, Philippines on Jan 28, 2015. Philippine President Benigno Aquino urged parliament Wednesday to save a Muslim rebel peace deal after it was jeopardised by a bungled anti-terror raid that killed 44 police commandos. -- PHOTO: EPA

MANILA (AFP) - Philippine President Benigno Aquino urged parliament Wednesday to save a Muslim rebel peace deal after it was jeopardised by a bungled anti-terror raid that killed 44 police commandos.

Public pressure is growing for retribution after Sunday's bloodbath on the southern island of Mindanao, the worst loss of life by the country's police or troops in recent memory.

Mr Aquino warned against calls to jettison a regional autonomy bill now being debated in parliament - aimed at ending decades of Muslim rebellion in Mindanao which killed tens of thousands - as payback for the police slaughter.

"If the law is not passed soon, the peace process will fail," he said in a live television address. "Our people will lose hope, resort to living outside the law and choose to commit violence against their fellow men."

He also called on the 10,000-member Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the main rebel group which signed the peace agreement last year, to help the government "bring those responsible to justice".

Senate (upper house) president Franklin Drilon earlier Wednesday said backing for the bill was seriously eroded two Aquino allies withdrew support in protest at the killings, leaving less than half of the 24-member senate supporting it.

"My worry is that the Bangsamoro basic law will not be passed because the incident has stoked emotions," Mr Drilon told local radio station DZMM.

The bill needs majority support in both the Senate and the House of Representatives to become law. Parliament had been aiming to pass it by March.

Public hearings on the bill were also suspended as other senators demanded an explanation for the bloodshed. House members also called for a reassessment of the peace accord.

Mr Aquino said he had been told by police that Zulkifli bin Hir, a Malaysian bombmaker and leading member of the Jemaah Islamiyah group which staged the 2002 Bali bombings, was killed in the raid. There has been no independent confirmation of the claim.

The 392-member police force mounting the raid suffered 44 dead while 16 policemen or civilians were wounded, Mr Aquino said, giving an updated report.

Rebels gave no figures for their own dead or wounded.

Mr Aquino said a second target of the operation, Filipino militant Abdul Basit Usman, put up a fight and forced the raiding force to withdraw.

They were then ambushed by the MILF as well as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, a militant splinter group that rejects the peace deal and last year pledged allegiance to ISIS fighters in Syria and Iraq.

Mr Aquino welcomed a statement earlier Wednesday by MILF leader Murad Ebrahim, who had pledged determination to pursue peace and vowed to form a high-level inquiry into the firefight. "Until what happened is established with credibility and integrity, the said incident will weigh down our current efforts to bring peace to our homeland," Murad said in a statement.

Manila-based analyst Ramon Casiple said the apparent robbing of the corpses - with pictures of some of the dead showing missing weapons and clothing - could spark a desire for revenge among military or police units in the area.

One police survivor said some wounded or captured colleagues had been finished off with shots to the head.

"The military, police, senators are all out for blood. The only thing that will satisfy them is for the perpetrators to be tried in court," said Casiple, executive director of the think-tank Institute for Political Reforms.

Julkipli Wadi, dean of the Institute of Islamic Studies at the University of the Philippines, told AFP the slaughter "poses a big challenge to the peace process but I think it's not enough reason to stop the peace talks".