On Tuesday, Philippine Marines engaged secessionist militants in the largest battle to take place for months in the Philippines troubled southern region. The clash left at least 14 marines dead, several of whom were allegedly beheaded. Before the fighting started, the marines were searching for a kidnapped Italian priest.
On Wednesday, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a separatist group, claimed responsibility for the attack. The Associated Press reports that Mohagher Iqbal, chief negotiator for the MILF, claimed that government forces violated a 2003 cease-fire agreement with the militants by entering their territory without first coordinating their actions with the group.
"It cannot be a mistaken encounter because it was a deliberate act on the part of the marines that entered the area, knowing that the area is a bailiwick of the MILF, in complete violation of the cease-fire," [Mr.] Iqbal said.
Philippine forces contend that they had no way of knowing that they had entered a MILF-controlled area, said Col. Ramiro Alivio, 1st Marine Brigade commanding officer, in an interview with local TV station ABS-CBN Broadcasting Corp. Colonel Alivio added that another militant group, the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), fought alongside MILF forces in an area that he believed was two or three kilometers from MILF's officially designated territory.
"That remains to be validated because [MILF] can claim [that the] area [is its] territory. It's not within our authority to say that that particular area is an MILF area. I would like to believe that [the Marines] were under the territory of the Republic of the Philippines and it falls under our jurisdiction," he said.
The British Broadcasting Corp. reported that, initially, government forces thought they were fighting members of ASG, "the smallest but deadliest of several Islamic groups fighting the Philippine government." Military officials question whether ASG was involved, as the group has no official presence in the area and MILF denies allowing ASG members into the area.
According to GMA News, MILF information officer Abu Majid said in an official statement that the decapitations were carried out by "unknown groups after the fighting."
"The MILF has ordered an investigation, because Islam prohibits mutilation or commission of any atrocity against a fallen enemy," the statement read.
China's Xinhua News Agency has questioned whether militants beheaded the marines or if the men were badly maimed by the fighting.
Senior Superintendent Alex Macapantar, Basilan provincial police chief, denied that the four bodies were decapitated, saying the heads of the soldiers were "destroyed," according to a report by local television network GMA News.
He also said the provincial police still has to investigate if the Abu Sayyaf had initiated the attack.
At least 300 militants ambushed 80 marines. The fighting left between four and 20 militants dead and between 14 and 25 marines dead. While there are conflicting reports about causality numbers, Reuters reports that it's the single biggest battle in the southern Philippines for months. Additionally, the clash marked the highest number of government soldiers killed in a single day since the 1980s, when the military was carrying out operations against communist rebels.
"The high number of casualties is best explained by the manner in which they were attacked," [Marine spokesman Lt-Col Ariel] Caculitan told reporters. "It was very treacherous. It was an ambush and our vehicles were burned and destroyed."
"We were totally outnumbered and we had no time to recover enemy casualties but we have reports of dead and injured on their side," Marine spokesman Caculitan said.
The marines entered the southern area based on a tip that Italian priest Father Giancarlo Bossi, who was kidnapped on June 10, had been sighted in the area. Father Bossi had worked in the Philippines since the 1980s and served as parish priest of Payao since April, reports Agence France-Presse. Before his kidnapping, the fishing and farming town had been considered a safe place for foreigners.
Compatriot Father Peter Geremiah, who works with PIME, describes Bossi as a kind man who was "willing to eat, sleep and live the way poor people live in his parish".
"Despite being warned that he could be a victim of harassment, Father Bossi would tell his colleagues that he is not afraid because God is with him and that he serves all people regardless of faith," Geremiah recalled recently.