Philippine forces yesterday mounted an offensive against Islamic militants who killed 14 marines, despite concerns the action may damage efforts to rescue a kidnapped Italian priest.
The marines were ambushed on Tuesday in the town of Tipo-tipo on southern Basilan island as they investigated a tip-off that Father Giancarlo Bossi, abducted from his parish on June 10, was being held in the area.
Ten of the slain marines were beheaded, the military said.
The government believes the attackers were a mix of fighters from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the country's main Islamic rebel group, and Abu Sayyaf, an Islamic extremist group known to have ties with al-Qaeda.
President Gloria Arroyo said that troops had been ordered to go after the fighters involved in the killings, despite ongoing government peace talks with the MILF.
"The armed forces are duty bound to hunt down and arrest those who treacherously killed and beheaded the soldiers," Arroyo said in a statement.
"If MILF forces are culpable, then they must be accounted for by the ceasefire committee and brought to justice."
Military chief General Hermogenes Esperon said he has ordered that a military contingent be deployed in the area "if only for the purpose of being able to prevent some people from escaping."
The 12,000-strong MILF, which has a three year-old truce in place as it negotiates peace with the government, says its forces attacked the marines after they entered MILF territory without advance notice.
The group has denied any involvement in the beheadings, and says four of its members were also killed in the clash.
The 57-year-old Bossi was seized by heavily armed men near his parish church in southern Zamboanga peninsula on June 10.