MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The largest Muslim rebel group in the Philippines has suspended three key commanders involved in an October clash that killed 19 soldiers and endangered a yearslong cease-fire.
Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebel leader Mohagher Iqbal said Thursday that the three commanders on southern Basilan island were suspended for three months after an investigation by Malaysian-led peace monitors found they violated a cease-fire accord with the government.
The probe showed government troops also violated the truce, officials and the rebels said.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin welcomed the rebel move, saying the punishment was light but acknowledged that the rebels made a mistake.
The Oct. 18 clash erupted when army special forces attempted to arrest Moro Islamic Liberation Front commander Dan Laksaw Asnawi in his hilly stronghold near Al-Barka town on southern Basilan island and another allied militant. Asnawi has been blamed for the 2007 beheadings of 10 marines during a clash in Al-Barka, a rebel stronghold.
Asnawi was captured but escaped from a jail in 2009 with the help of his comrades.
Rebel spokesman Von Al Haq said the punishment meted on the three commanders underscored the guerrillas' sincerity. "If both sides don't own up to mistakes, it's hard to push for reforms," Al Haq said.
The army loss in October, one of the largest in a single clash in recent years, sparked calls for President Benigno Aquino III to break a truce and launch a major offensive to punish the guerrillas. Aquino dismissed the calls and decided to proceed with peace talks with the rebels, who have been fighting for Muslim-rule in the country's south for decades.
A government investigation after the Oct. 18 clash blamed Basilan-based army commanders for lapses that led to the deaths of the 19 soldiers. Four officers were relieved from their posts, and the military said officers will recommend soon whether they should face court martial or be cleared.
The next round of peace talks is scheduled March 19-21 in Malaysia, which is brokering the talks.