Deadly clash in Philippines a setback to peace with Muslim rebels

Filipino Police officers saluting as one coffin passes during the departure ceremony for the 44 elite Police Special Action Force (SAF) members killed at Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig, south of Manila, Philippines on Jan 2015. -- PHOTO: EPA
Filipino Police officers saluting as one coffin passes during the departure ceremony for the 44 elite Police Special Action Force (SAF) members killed at Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig, south of Manila, Philippines on Jan 2015. -- PHOTO: EPA

KUALA LUMPUR (REUTERS) - A deadly clash between Philippines police and Muslim rebels in the south of the country has dealt a temporary setback to peace talks, Manila's chief peace negotiator said on Saturday, appealing for renewed efforts to keep the process on track.

The government has described last Sunday's clash, which shattered a three-year ceasefire, as a "misencounter" during a bid by police to arrest two wanted militants who had taken refuge with Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) fighters. Forty-four police commandos were killed in the assault.

"We have been temporarily set back by the Mamasapano incident," Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, the government's chief peace negotiator, told a news conference in Kuala Lumpur.

"Please stay the course with us," she said. "The other alternative is simple unthinkable ... I don't think we want to go back to the 1970s."

Government and rebel peace panels met in Malaysia on Friday to sign protocols for the surrender of weapons by the MILF in a bid to underscore their commitment to the peace process, brokered by Kuala Lumpur.

The two sides signed an agreement in March 2014, ending a conflict that has killed more than 120,000 people, displaced 2 million and stunted growth in one of the poorest but resource-rich regions in the country.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino on Wednesday urged legislators not to abandon a plan for an autonomous Muslim region in the south of the mainly Catholic state, the next step in ending the rebels' 45-year insurgency.

Mohagher Iqbal, head of the rebel panel, described the clash as "an ugly turn of events", which had sowed seeds of doubt over their commitment to the peace agreement.

"We will remain under scrutiny. We will have to regain the people's trust," he said.