MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines said on Monday a clash between security forces and Muslim rebels in which dozens of people were killed was a mistake and both sides said they were hopeful the violence would not scupper a peace deal the rebels are negotiating.
Security forces said about 50 policemen and eight rebels were killed in what a top official described as a “misencounter” during an operation on Sunday to arrest two militants who had taken refuge with Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighters.
The rebels, fighting for 45 years in the south of the largely Christian country, have agreed to disband their force and surrender weapons in exchange for an autonomous government.
Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas said the police were hunting two “high-value” militants but police commandos ran into a group of rebels who thought the police were mounting an attack.
“This was a misencounter,” Roxas told a news conference in Cotabato City in the south of the country.
“We expect that naturally there will be impact but we are hopeful and confident this will not derail the peace talks.”
Efforts to bring peace to the main southern island of Mindanao have raised hopes for the development of a long-neglected region rich in mineral resources.
The fighting has killed 120,000 people and displaced 2 million.
Mohagher Iqbal, head of the rebel peace panel, said the police failed to coordinate their operations with the ceasefire committee.
“They entered our area and attacked us, what are we going to do?” he asked. “What happened was self-defense.”
Iqbal said he was confident the peace deal would not be affected because both sides were committed to it.
The government and the rebels signed a truce in March 2014 but a final deal is still being worked out. The next stage of the process involves the Senate drafting a law on autonomy for the region.
Roxas said police had been trying to arrest Zulkifli bin Hir, a Malaysian member of the al Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiah militant group behind numerous bomb attacks in the Philippines, and another militant called Abdul Basit Usman.
Bin Hir, alias Marwan, is the most wanted Islamist militant in the Philippines and the United States has offered a reward of $5 million for him.
A $1 million reward has been posted for the Filipino Usman.
Roxas said there was a high likelihood Bin Hir had been “neutralized” but DNA tests would be carried out to confirm the suspicion. Usman had escaped, he said.
Editing by Robert Birsel