The Philippines government warned on Monday that moves to make peace with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front were at risk due to evidence the group was involved in a clash that left 43 people dead.
Defence Secretary Gilberto Teodoro warned that members of the Front found to be aiding another group, the Al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf, would be treated as an enemy force not covered by a ceasefire imposed last month.
His comments came after a firefight last Wednesday in which elements of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) reportedly ambushed soldiers who captured the Abu Sayyaf’s main training camp on the southern island of Basilan.
"I think that would severely affect their credibility as an organization to the Filipino people" and in "any peace settlements," Teodoro said on local television.
He said the MILF leadership should "order their forces in Basilan — if they have command and control on the matter — not to intervene."
Twenty-three soldiers and about 20 Abu Sayyaf militants were killed in the fighting. The government casualties were the heaviest in two years.
MILF forces on Basilan who were informed of the government offensive so as to avoid confusion apparently helped carry out the carnage, Teodoro said, citing field reports.
He described the attack by MILF units as "unexpected".
The MILF has been engaged in a periodic separatist campaign in the southern Philippines since 1978. Five years ago it signed a ceasefire with the government to negotiate for peace.
The peace talks collapsed in August 2008 after MILF commanders attacked Christian communities in the south. But both sides have recently taken steps to resume the talks.
Military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Romeo Brawner said the Abu Sayyaf was on the run on Basilan and had nowhere to go.
"If the MILF provides sanctuary to the Abu Sayyaf, once they do that, we will consider them part of the group also," he said, adding that Abu Sayyaf ranks had fallen to only 300 fighters from a high of over 2,000 10 years ago.