A military offensive in the southern Philippines may prompt al-Qaeda-linked militants to sow terror elsewhere in the country, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo warned yesterday, saying she has ordered the military and police to bolster security.
The government will not ease off the offensive despite calls from some sectors to halt the fighting because doing so would endanger the country's security, fail to give justice to slain soldiers and embolden terrorists, she said in her opening statement at a meeting of the National Security Council.
US-backed troops bombarded Muslim rebel strongholds with artillery on Basilan island on Sunday, a day after 15 marines and 40 militants were killed in a fierce clash, officials said.
The marines were killed when their unit attacked a jungle hide-out of the al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf group near Basilan's remote Ungkaya Pukan town, sparking a daylong clash during which an air force pilot also died when his helicopter crashed at sea, the military said.
The military claimed about 40 Abu Sayyaf insurgents were killed, including two commanders who allegedly took part in last month's beheadings of 10 marines on Basilan island.
On nearby Jolo island, troops raided a suspected Abu Sayyaf safe house in Indanan township early on Sunday and took into custody 19 men, women and children, Major General Ruben Rafael said. After questioning, 14 were released and investigators were trying to determine if the other five were Abu Sayyaf gunmen, he said.
"With the victory of our troops and police against terrorists in Basilan and Sulu, it is not farfetched for them to attempt to sow terror in other parts of the country," Arroyo said. "That is why I have ordered our national police and armed forces to coordinate with local governments and the people to safeguard our cities and communities against any terrorist plot."
"We will not back off from our offensive in order to give justice to our marines, to give peace and progress to our country," she said, urging Filipinos to unite behind security forces.
But the government will continue to pursue peace in the south and hopes to resume talks with a larger Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), next month in Malaysia, she said.
The talks with the MILF had been scheduled to begin in Malaysia today.
Retired general Rodolfo Garcia said the military offensive in the south against Islamic militants was not the reason for the delay.
"I did request for the postponement of talks to a new date next month so I would have more time to refine our position," Garcia said yesterday.