MANILA, Philippines – More than 30 police commandos were killed in a clash with Muslim insurgents Sunday in the southern Philippines in the biggest single-day combat loss for Philippine forces in many years, officials said.
The commandos had entered the far-flung village of Tukanalipao at dawn looking for a top terror suspect, but had a "misencounter" with members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and other insurgents, Mayor Tahirudin Benzar Ampatuan of Mamasapano town told The Associated Press by telephone.
Other insurgents in the area later joined in fighting the outnumbered police forces, the mayor said.
The Moro group signed a peace deal with the government last year.
Ampatuan, the Moro group and military officials said the police commandos did not coordinate their plan to enter the Muslim rebel village before sunrise, apparently resulting in the fierce fighting.
The fighting in the marshy village of corn and coconut plantations subsided after several hours when members of a cease-fire committee and foreign truce monitors intervened, Ampatuan said, adding he deployed a team of village leaders and guards, who saw more than 30 of the slain commandos scattered in the battle scene.
"What they described to me was gruesome," Ampatuan said.
At least two Philippine security officials told The AP that the target of the police commandos was Zulkifli bin Hir, a Malaysian terror suspect known also as Marwan, who has been blamed by U.S. and Philippine authorities for several deadly bombings. Marwan is believed to have been hiding in the country's south since 2003.
The two officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters about operations to capture Marwan, who they said may have been wounded or killed in Sunday's fighting.
The villagers managed to extricate only five of policemen's bodies by nightfall because they were afraid of their safety amid sporadic gunfire and the darkness in the village, which was 1.2 to 1.9 miles from the nearest main road, Ampatuan said.
It remains unclear how many police commandos entered the village, he said, adding the death toll may increase.