MANILA, Philippines – The Philippine military launched air strikes Monday against dozens of suspected outlaws who have been surrounded by troops in a southern town, but the president said the country's largest Muslim rebel group was not a target, as he tried to safeguard peace talks.
Efforts by Philippine authorities to arrest several current and former commanders of the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front who have been accused of kidnappings and other crimes sparked deadly clashes with troops last week, providing new complication to already-shaky peace negotiations and testing a years-long truce.
The Moro group has been waging a bloody fight for self-rule in southern Mindanao region, homeland of minority Muslims in the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines. A cease-fire has held since 2008, when the peace talks bogged down and ignited widespread fighting that killed hundreds of people.
President Benigno Aquino III, under pressure because of a clamor to suspend talks and order assaults against the Moro group, said his administration would continue talks with the insurgents but seek the arrest of criminals, including those from the rebel group.
"It is so easy, out of frustration, to close the door on negotiations at this time," Aquino said Monday. "If we go down this path, more innocent civilians will be put in harm's way."
"We will not pursue all-out war," Aquino said. "We will instead pursue all-out justice."
A massive assault launched by the military in a hinterland in the coastal town of Payao in southern Zamboanga Sibugay province Monday targeted around 150 bandits, including former Muslim guerrillas who the police have tried to arrest for alleged kidnappings for ransom, police said.
The suspected outlaws have resisted arrest and are encamped with gunmen near Payao, where they have been encircled by about 200 army troops and police in recent days. Air force OV-10 bomber planes attacked the gunmen before ground forces moved in, sparking clashes that killed two soldiers and four gunmen, regional military spokesman Lt. Col. Randolph Cabangbang said.
Moro spokesman Von Al Haq said hundreds of guerrillas from his group and their families live near the battle scene in Payao and have been displaced by the government offensive. He urged the government to stop the air strikes, which he said have endangered civilians.
The criminals being sought by authorities in Payao no longer belonged to the Muslim group, Al Haq said.
Last week, government troops and police attempted to arrest several Muslim rebels on southern Basilan island, including Dan Laksaw Asnawi, who escaped from jail in 2009 and was accused of involvement in the beheadings of marines in 2007.
Asnawi, who remains a commander of the Moro group, battled troops in clashes in Basilan's remote Al-Barka town that killed 19 army soldiers. Among the dead were six soldiers who were captured alive by the guerrillas but later shot and hacked to death, angering the army.
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front owned up to the killing but said government troops instigated the fighting because they attacked a rebel stronghold in violation of cease-fire rules. The military said the troops were attacked by the guerrillas far from their Al-Barka lair.
Aquino said Monday that when he stood before the flag-draped coffins of the slain soldiers beside grieving families in Manila last week, he was convinced all the more of the necessity of pursuing peace talks with Muslim rebels, the majority of whom he said yearn for peace.
"As I stood over their remains, I made a personal pledge to do all that I can so that in the future, such sacrifices will no longer be necessary," Aquino said. "While it is tempting for the government to join the chorus in calling for blood, we believe that such a course of action is not appropriate at this point."