MANILA (AFP) - There is a "high likelihood" a Malaysian militant who is suspected of being behind the 2002 Bali bombings was killed in a Philippine police operation, a senior official said on Tuesday.
Sunday's offensive in the southern Philippines had been against a number of "high-value targets" including fugitive Zulkifli bin Hir - who has a US$5 million (S$6.7 million) bounty on his head - but turned into a bloodbath when clashes erupted between police commandos and Islamist militants. A total of 44 policemen were killed and 12 others were wounded in the battles, Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas told a news conference.
Mr Roxas said a 392-member police "special action force" had been sent to the remote southern farming town of Mamasapano to arrest several top militants, including Zulkifli, who is also known as Marwan. "There is a high likelihood according to the participants that Marwan was killed in the operations, but this needs confirmation," Mr Roxas told a news conference.
While the commandos failed to recover the body of their main target, "they were able to take pictures, and these pictures will undergo a process to determine whether it was Marwan or not". Mr Roxas said he had personally seen some of the photographs, but could not "tell from these pictures whether it was Marwan or not".
A top Malaysian police official on counter-terrorism told the Malay Mail newspaper that Kuala Lumpur was still waiting for information from the Philippine authorities on Zulkifli's fate.
Zulkifli, among the United States's most wanted militants, is a bombmaker for the Jemaah Islamiyah group that staged the 2002 bombings in Bali that claimed 202 lives, and other deadly attacks in South-east Asia.
The militant has long been sought by the authorities, and declarations of his death have proved premature in the past, with the Philippine military saying in early 2012 that it had killed Zulkifli in an air strike.
The Philippine authorities have alleged that some of the Bali bombers had fled to the southern Philippines and sought refuge with Muslim rebels waging decades-old armed campaigns against the Manila government.
They also say the foreign militants had then trained these Filipino rebels in manufacturing improvised explosive devices that have been used in bombings in the Philippines.
According to Mr Roxas, the Philippine police were leaving the area where the operation was taking place when they were ambushed by the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), one of the groups accused of sheltering Zulkifli.
The police escaped the ambush, only to stray into territory controlled by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), sparking another firefight, the interior secretary said.
The 10,000-strong MILF, the main Muslim rebel group in the south, signed a peace treaty with the government in March last year.
The BIFF, a breakaway faction of several hundred Muslim gunmen, was not part of the deal.
President Benigno Aquino has ordered an investigation into the incident, a major test of the accord intended to end a 40-year insurgency that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.
The MILF said the police did not coordinate the operation as required under the ceasefire accord.
The MILF and BIFF did not release figures of their casualties. Mr Roxas, meanwhile, said that aside from the casualties, all remaining police commandoes had been accounted for.