MANILA–The Philippines’ largest Muslim rebel group on Tuesday denounced the killing of four of its members in clashes with soldiers, just two weeks after a peace deal was signed to end their decades-old conflict. The military has acknowledged that gunmen from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) were among 20 people killed in a shootout on a remote southern island Friday as security forces pursued Islamic militants blamed for beheadings and kidnappings. “Four of our members were martyred,” MILF vice chairman Ghazali Jaafar told reporters. Officials have said the clashes on Basilan island broke out while local MILF members were helping the military to arrest fighters from the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf group. The MILF has asked an international committee monitoring the ceasefire between the Philippines and the rebel group to investigate who was to blame for Friday’s violence, Jaafar said. The fighting broke out two weeks after the MILF signed a political settlement to end more than four decades of an armed conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives in the mainly Catholic nation’s Muslim south. The peace deal aims to create an autonomous Muslim area in the south by early next year, with the MILF expected to disarm and put up candidates for a regional parliament in May 2016. Jaafar said the government and the MILF were currently enjoying a “honeymoon” period. “We do not want this agreement to be disturbed by such unwanted incidents initiated by the military,” he added. Military spokesmen said 18 gunmen from the MILF and Abu Sayyaf were killed. Two soldiers died and 28 others were wounded. Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala said the operation had been coordinated with MILF officials, and that it targeted Abu Sayyaf members who are not covered by any ceasefire. But he said that at one point, the soldiers noticed that the Abu Sayyaf gunmen were being reinforced by unidentified fighters.
“If there were MILF forces, they were never meant as a target… It is possible they joined (the Abu Sayyaf) as individuals and not as MILF (members),” he told AFP. Military chief of staff General Emmanuel Bautista also alleged on Tuesday that a small number of MILF guerrillas had helped relatives in the Abu Sayyaf ranks. “The MILF should deal with them,” Bautista told reporters. Jaafar said the allegations had yet to be proven.