The government warned yesterday that troops were ready to crush any Muslim guerrilla attacks in the southern Philippines after the rebels defied a military ultimatum to surrender the killers of 14 marines.
The separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) said any government attack on its forces on Basilan island -- where 14 marines were killed, 10 of them beheaded, on July 10 -- could cause fighting to spread elsewhere in the south, where a ceasefire has held since 2003.
The military said it was ready to launch "punitive actions" against MILF insurgents on Basilan. National Security Adviser and Acting Defense Secretary Norberto Gonzales said the government was pursuing the perpetrators of the ambush and did not intend to launch an all-out war against the MILF.
"We will look for them and find them and get them if the MILF will not surrender them to us," Gonzales told ABS-CBN TV.
He said he was undeterred by a threat that the fighting could spill over to other areas.
"We are deployed all over Mindanao as well. We will do the necessary action if needed," he said.
The rebels warned on their Web site that "hell could let loose anytime now" after the military deadline expired on Sunday.
"It's tense all over," MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu said, accusing the military of moving forces close to rebel camps on Basilan and other parts of the Mindanao in the last few days.
"Our forces are only waiting for any action from the military's part, and they would also move," he said. "They are purely in defensive mode."
Military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Bartolome Bacarro said there were no reports of clashes yesterday. But he said ground commanders have been authorized to carry out "a range of military actions under punitive actions" after the lapse of the Sunday deadline.
Bacarro said the military would not run after the MILF as a group.