World Bulletin / News Desk
Four days after the reported death of one of Southeast Asia's most wanted men in a bloody shootout in which 44 Philippineese died, a rebel group claims not only is he still alive, he wasn't even in the area of the raid at the time.
A spokesman for the Moro National Liberation Front told DZMM radio Wednesday that Malaysian bomb maker Zulkifli bin Hir -- alias "Marwan" -- remains at large.
"What happened was painful, they are also our brothers," Emmanuel Fontanilla said of the Special Action Force (SAF) members who died in Sunday's operation in Mamasapano town in the province of Maguindanao in the country's predominantly Muslim south.
"What we know that their subject is not there. He is in [the nearby province of] Lanao."
Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas has told media that "the misencounter... happened when the SAF team maneuvered inadvertently into an area controlled by the MILF [Moro Islamic Liberation Front] without advance coordination after deciding to withdraw their action to arrest Usman [another militant thought to be in the area] and Marwan."
The MILF -- the Philippines' one-time largest rebel group -- signed a peace deal with the government in March to end a decades-long insurgency and establish a new authority to replace the much-criticized Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
The incident now threatens the deal. The House of Representatives has agreed to suspend deliberations pending the results of a board of inquiry into the incident.
GMA news has reported Mohagher Iqbal -- the MILF's chief negotiator in the peace talks -- as saying that the ensuing firefight was "self-defense" on their part.
Iqbal said that police had fired first in the clash, which also reportedly involved members of MILF splinter group the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.
Fontanilla told DZMM Monday that "their [the SAF] intelligence is wrong. It would have been better if they asked us," referring to police reports that Marwan "was" in Maguindanao and operatives were able to "neutralize" him at around 2:30 a.m. (18.30GMT Saturday) during the encounter.
"Relatives [of our members] tell us there was nothing there," he added, highlighting that some elements of the MNLF, the MILF and BIFF are blood relatives.
Marwan is considered one of the most wanted leaders of Jemaah Islamiya -- a Southeast Asian organization linked to al-Qaeda believed to operate in Southeast Asia -- and also understood to be involved in bombing and attacks in Mindanao involving the Abu Sayyaf.
Alongside him in Maguindanao was believed to be foreign-trained bomb maker Basit Usman -- a Filipino rebel belonging to the Abu Sayyaf -- and also believed to have links with Jemaah Islamiya.
Philippines Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said Monday that while Marwan had been killed Usman was "able to escape."
The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation had recently offered $5 million bounty for Marwan's capture and $1 million for Usman's.
Media reports say that the situation remains tense in Mamasapano, with the MILF and BIFF reported to be building up forces in the area.
Brigadier General Carlito Galvez of the Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities has said that all government forces and checkpoints have been pulled from Mamasapano, and the MILF has been asked to cease its build up for fear it further destabilizes the area .
Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno has appealed for calm.
"We call for sobriety as we all await the full report on the investigation. During this time, we must ascertain facts to avoid confusion and acknowledge the complexities of the situation to allow for the rule of law to truly prevail."
A board of inquiry has been set up by the government to investigate the incident, while the MILF says it has formed its own investigative body.
"Our concern is the truth," MILF chairman Murad Ebrahim said in an undated statement posted on the group's official website Wednesday.
"There will be a lot of speculation as to what happened, and until what happened is established with credibility and integrity, the said incident will weigh down our current efforts to bring peace to our homeland."
"In order to give meaning to their deaths, we must resolve not to let something like this happen again," Murad underlined.