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Fighting Between Philippines Police, Muslim Rebels Could Threaten Peace Talks

Members of the Philippine National Police Special Action Forces load bodies of police commandos into vehicles in Maguindanao, Philippines, Jan. 26, 2015.

Members of the Philippine National Police Special Action Forces load bodies of police commandos into vehicles in Maguindanao, Philippines, Jan. 26, 2015.

The latest fighting between Philippine police and the country's largest Muslim rebel group represents a serious threat to an already fragile peace process for the southern region of Mindanao, analysts say.

At least 43 government commandos died in the clashes Sunday with rebels from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the single largest loss of life by Philippine security forces in recent memory. It is not yet clear how many rebel fighters died in the battle.

The clashes erupted after the Philippine National Police conducted a raid to find two top terror suspects in Maguindanao province. MILF fighters said they were not consulted in advance as required by a joint agreement reached last year.

The MILF and Manila agreed last March to a landmark cease-fire that ended decades of fighting that has killed more than 120,000 people. Further peace talks were supposed to result in a deal of greater autonomy for the mostly Muslim southern region.

"This was a misencounter," Philippines Interior Minister Manuel Roxas said at a press conference Monday. "We expect that naturally there will be impact, but we are hopeful and confident that this will not derail the peace talks."

Mohagher Iqbal, the chief negotiator for the MILF, also expressed hope the incident would not disrupt the peace process.

But many analysts are skeptical the negotiations can proceed as usual.

"It's a huge deal. There's just no other way to put it. It really puts the peace process, that was moving along quite well, into jeopardy," said Zachary Abuza, an independent analyst who has written frequently on the Muslim insurgency.

The timing of the clashes was particularly important. They came just weeks before Philippine lawmakers were expected to approve the Bangsamoro Basic Law, which would grant formal autonomy to the region.

"On Saturday, the bill was destined for passage - not to say that it wouldn't be amended and tweaked - but it was set to be passed in March or April. And I think that is no longer certain," Abuza told VOA.

On Monday, the Philippine Congress suspended all hearings on the adoption of the Basic Law, pending an investigation into the violence. Some lawmakers also pulled their support for the bill.

According to the roadmap for peace, the MILF was required to begin turning over its firearms following the adoption of the Basic Law. It is now unclear whether enough trust exists on each side to ensure that crucial step will take place.

Both the MILF and Manila need to take "dramatic measures" to save the peace process, according to Benny Bacani, executive director of the Mindanao-based Institute for Autonomy and Governance.

"One of the ways this must be done would be to really have an independent investigation and see whether there has been [a] violation on [the] part of the [police] in terms of the protocol of the cease-fire agreement," said Bacani.

"But on the side of the MILF also, there is a need for them to really come out strongly to commit themselves also to do this process. One concrete thing would be an openness to heed the [weapons decommissioning] process," he added.

The violence risks upsetting a peace process that was already shaky and did not have the support of all the region's rebel groups. The most notable hold-out was the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, or BIFF, which broke away from the MILF in 2010 because of its opposition to the talks.

Bacani says BIFF rebels may now point to the fighting as evidence a peace deal with the government will never work. "This is really a serious threat and it can be used by those who don't want this process to continue. This has been a really fragile process anyway," he said.