ZAMBOANGA, Philippines — Tensions remained high in the troubled southern part of the country on Sunday, despite the military suspending operations against Muslim separatists accused of killing 14 marines.
A 2,000-member task force assigned to hunt down suspects linked to the killing stayed in place on Basilan island after the government halted the operations until after an investigation into the July 10 attack.
Fourteen marines were killed, 10 of whom were beheaded, as they searched for the kidnappers of Italian Roman Catholic priest Giancarlo Bossi, since freed unharmed.
Colonel Ramiro Alivio, commander of a military brigade deployed in Basilan, said “intelligence operations and security patrols” were continuing but that there have been no large-scale movement of forces by either side and no armed contact has been recorded as of Sunday.
The 12,000-member Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which has been observing a three-year ceasefire while in peace talks with Manila, has said its forces killed the soldiers because they had strayed into its territory.
The Muslim separatists have denied mutilating the bodies and rejected a military demand to turn over those behind the attack.
In a statement Sunday, the MILF appealed for help to “calm down the already tense situation,” although it added that “massive deployment of troops without prior coordination is a violation of the (government-)-MILF ceasefire agreement.”
The military activity has forced nearly 6,000 Basilan residents to flee their homes, the civil defense office in Manila said.
A joint government-MILF investigating team was due in Basilan shortly to determine who was responsible for the beheadings.
A lower court in Basilan has meanwhile issued arrest warrants against 130 people, mostly MILF guerrillas, suspected of killing the marines.
The offensive against the MILF was delayed until Tuesday following a warning by Japan and Canada that they would halt their aid programs in the south if the fighting escalated.