Muslim guerrillas said they would defy a military ultimatum to surrender rebels who killed 14 Philippine marines and yesterday braced for war, which both sides acknowledge would imperil already-shaky Malaysian-brokered peace talks.
The military announced on Saturday that it has been authorized by the National Security Council to launch "punitive actions" against Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) insurgents who attacked a marine convoy searching for a kidnapped Italian priest on July 10 on southern Basilan Island.
Ten of the marines were found beheaded -- an act condemned as barbaric by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and the 120,000-strong military, and which MILF has denied.
Military chief of staff General Hermogenes Esperon gave the MILF until yesterday to turn in the guerrillas who attacked the marines, but the rebel front said they would defy the deadline, which it claimed violated a ceasefire accord that forbids threats of attacks.
"We will wait for the aggressors to come," the rebels said in a statement posted on its Web site, saying it was their God-given right to defend themselves and their homes on Basilan.
The MILF boasted that its guerrillas on Basilan, which rebel spokesman Eid Kabalu says number more than 1,000, have the best battle records in the entire rebel command.
It cited a 1996 battle when they destroyed seven tanks in 14 days of fighting in the volatile south and the July 10 clash in Basilan's Al-Barka town, when the rebels killed "23 marines, not 14" and captured 17 assault rifles.
While the MILF has acknowledged its Basilan forces had engaged the marines, who it accused of encroaching into rebel strongholds, it denied beheading the 10 marines and called for an investigation by Malaysian-led ceasefire monitors.
Even if an investigation found that some guerrillas committed mistakes not sanctioned by the MILF, the ceasefire provides that the rebel front would impose the punishment, not the military, Kabalu said.
"They're now violating the ceasefire agreement and they want the peace process to totally bog down," Kabalu said of the military's demand and threat of attack. "We don't want to become a party to that."
Presidential adviser on the peace process Jesus Dureza said any military offensive would be directed against the insurgents, who attacked the marines and not on the entire MILF. However, he acknowledged the peace talks would be affected and fightings would displace villagers.
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