Philippine National Police (PNP) carry a body bag, containing a member of the Special Action Force, to a van in Mamasapano town, Maguindanao province, January 26, 2015.
Philippine National Police (PNP) carry a body bag, containing a member of the Special Action Force, to a van in Mamasapano town, Maguindanao province, January 26, 2015.

MANILA - Philippine authorities say the death toll is over 40 in a fight between a special police raiding team and members of the country’s largest Muslim rebel group, which is forging a peace agreement with the government. It happened a day before congressional hearings on a proposed law that would see the formation of an autonomous Muslim-majority region in the country’s restive south.

Police in the southern Philippines say the dead included government troops and rebels in Sunday’s clash, which took place in Mamasapano town in Maguindanao province, a Moro Islamic Liberation Front stronghold. The government troops were reportedly seeking Zulkifli bin Hir, a suspected terrorist from Malaysia known for his bomb-making expertise.

The head peace negotiator of the Front said the Philippine National Police should have first let members of the rebel group know they were carrying out operations in their area.

Transition Commission Chair Mohagher Iqbal said “there is no substitute for coordination.”

“The thought is that solving one problem created so many problems.  And it had a spillover effect into the Bangsamoro Basic Law, which is under deliberation in Congress,” said Iqbal.

Senate Local Government Committee Chair Ferdinand Marcos Jr. suspended hearings on the proposal, saying in a statement they could not move forward “while a cloud of serious doubt hangs over the security situation in the south.” 

Representative Rufus Biazon, head of the House Ad Hoc Committee on the Bangsamoro Basic Law, also put out a resolution to suspend hearings related to security and law enforcement. The Ad Hoc Committee is also calling for an investigation of the Sunday battle.

However, a Senate committee hearing on the constitutionality of a proposed law that would create an autonomous region called Bangsamoro went ahead Monday despite the violence. 

This is the first major clash between the two sides since rebels and the government signed a peace deal last March. The pact is aimed at ending four decades of fighting in the south that has left more than 120,000 dead and millions displaced. Through years of negotiations, and during this transition period, both sides have had an international cease-fire monitoring team in place.

Government Chief Negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer said in a statement that the government was “deeply saddened by the loss of life” in the encounter. She said the government suffered some “serious casualties” but the fight should not be a deal breaker for lawmakers vetting the proposal.

“We have to move on and precisely be able to address these problems in a more comprehensive way and in a manner where we are able to work as much as possible with groups who have renounced violence so that we can isolate those who continue to use violence as their political modality for achieving some gains- or are simply criminal elements,” said Coronel-Ferrer.

Peace negotiators have placed a self-imposed timeline for all components of the pact to be in place by mid-2016, when President Benigno Aquino steps down from office. Before that time, the law must be passed, a referendum of the affected region must be held for residents to determine whether they want to be part of the new area, and a parliamentary form of government must begin functioning after May 2016 elections.