Philippine Muslim rebels considering returning seized weapons

Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels in their camp on Mindanao in 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels in their camp on Mindanao in 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

MANILA (AFP) - Philippine Muslim rebels said Friday they were considering returning dozens of high-powered firearms that they seized from some of the 44 police commandos killed in a botched anti-terror operation in the south.

The gesture would show the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) are committed to a peace treaty they signed with Manila last year, the group's chief peace negotiator Mohagher Iqbal told AFP.

"We are discussing the very sensitive issue of returning the firearms.... A decision will be made very soon," Iqbal said.

"We are assuring the government that on the part of the MILF, we did not mean for it to happen," he said. "We are in mourning too. We lost 18 of our men. We are also in pain."

Iqbal could not immediately say how many police guns were seized by the MILF.

Forty-four police commandos hunting one of the world's most wanted terrorists were killed after more than 10 hours of fighting in remote marshlands in Maguindanao province on January 25 - the single biggest loss of life among government forces in recent memory.

Malaysian Zulkifli bin Hir aka Marwan, a top militant in Southeast Asian terror group Jemaah Islamiyah and a key suspect in the 2002 Bali bombings, is believed to have been killed in the police assault, according to authorities, citing an initial DNA test by the FBI.

Zulkifli's lair was surrounded by communities controlled by the MILF and another rebel group that did not sign the peace accord, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, and police commandos engaged both groups.

"This is one step towards accountability," national police spokesman Generoso Cerbo told AFP when asked to comment on the MILF's statement.

"This is a good development, although it won't be complete unless the perpetrators are identified," he added.

The Philippine justice department, parliament, and security establishments are conducting parallel investigations into the incident, which put the peace treaty in peril and opened up President Benigno Aquino to savage criticism.

"The peace process remains on track, though delayed," Iqbal said.

The symbolic decommissioning of a first batch of rebel firearms was scheduled for March, he said.

The peace deal, aimed at ending a decades-old rebellion that has claimed more than 120,000 lives, binds Manila to passing a law that will create an autonomous area in the South and give the country's Muslim minority self-rule.