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The exact circumstances of the ensuing clash between government forces and insurgent groups are yet to be established by an independent investigation panel. But one thing is for sure; emotions are running high on both sides of the fence, with a growing portion of the mainstream Filipino population turning sceptical vis-a-vis the peace negotiations with the MILF.

The Philippines is on the verge of losing a historic chance to end the conflict in the Mindanao for good, unless leaders from both parties engage in a concerted effort to prevent a breakdown in peace negotiations.

After years of progressively encouraging peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, the country was jolted by a tragic turn of events when 44 members of the elite Special Action Force (SAF) from the Philippine National Police were killed on January 25, during a day-long encounter with insurgent groups.

It marked one of the bloodiest clashes between the Philippine government and Islamist insurgents in recent memory, rekindling age-old animosities between the two sides.

The exact circumstances of the ensuing clash between government forces and insurgent groups are yet to be established by an independent investigation panel. But one thing is for sure; emotions are running high on both sides of the fence, with a growing portion of the mainstream Filipino population turning sceptical about the peace negotiations with the MILF.

The Philippines is on the verge of losing a historic chance to end the conflict in the Mindanao for good, unless leaders from both parties engage in a concerted effort to prevent a breakdown in peace negotiations.

Uncertain circumstances

The SAF members were in pursuit of Malaysian bombing suspect Zulkifli bin Hir, aka "Marwan", and his Filipino counterpart Abdul Basit Usman. But they eventually ended up in violent clashes with insurgent groups stationed in the area. The US - a key ally that has provided extensive counterterror technical and operational assistance to the Philippines throughout the years - offered up to a $5m reward for Marwan's capture and $1m for Usman, underscoring the relevance of the operation amid a decades-long counterterror campaign in Mindanao.

Philippine president seeks to save peace pact

The SAF operation was planned and undertaken with utmost secrecy, apparently without coordination with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), the conventional military.

Marwan was reportedly killed during the operation, while Usman was able to escape. However, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) - MILF's parent organisation - claims that SAF's chief target, Marwan, may have once again escaped the authorities.

Crucially, government sources allege that members of the MILF (105th Base Command) as well as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) were involved in a joint assault against the SAF commandos. Although the Philippine military was later informed about the clashes, it didn't dispatch reinforcements to aid the SAF forces in strict observance of an existing ceasefire agreement between the MILF and the AFP.

Top government officials such as Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas have described the incident as a "misencounter", raising the possibility that the MILF forces mistook the SAF's civilian law-enforcement operation as a military incursion by the AFP.

Committed to peace

The BIFF is a splinter group, which broke away from the MILF after rejecting the terms of peace negotiations with the Philippine government. Analysts have raised the possibility that certain factions within the MILF may have maintained loose, fluid ties with the BIFF throughout the peace negotiation process, which culminated in the Framework Agreement on Bangsamoro that paved the way for the establishment of an autonomous Muslim-majority sub-state entity in Mindanao.

There is growing worry over the possibility of a total breakdown in peace negotiations, allowing hardline elements to undercut efforts by moderate insurgency leaders as well as the Aquino administration to end the conflict in Mindanao.

Shortly after the tragic incident, Philippine President Benigno Aquino asserted that some BIFF and MILF members are "related by blood or by affinity". The Filipino leader has asked for utmost cooperation by the MILF's top brass to avoid further escalation and ensure the incident is properly investigated.

The MILF leadership has fervently denied the existence of any internal division and/or operational coordination with the BIFF, denying accusations that it has been harbouring terror suspects while accusing the Philippine government of violating the terms of peace negotiations by dispatching the SAF into MILF-controlled areas.

Ghadzali Jaafar, vice chairman for political affairs of the MILF, declared his organisation recognises "no political and military gain in cooperating with the BIFF". He has adamantly asserted that the MILF has a uniform chain of command, which ensures "all of our combatants are disciplined".

There is growing worry over the possibility of a total breakdown in peace negotiations, allowing hardline elements to undercut efforts by moderate insurgency leaders as well as the Aquino administration to end the conflict in Mindanao. The MILF's Chairman al-Haj Murad Ebrahim reiterated his commitment to peace, declaring how an "enduring peace and justice remain to be our primary objective".

Constructive comments

Building on constructive comments from MILF leaders, Aquino also reiterated the importance of sticking to the peace process, cautioning against resumption in armed hostilities.

Aquino seems determined to ensure short-term setbacks don't compromise the long-term goal of resolving the Mindanao conflict, which has claimed as many as 150,000 lives, mostly civilian, and displaced two million people over the past four decades. In many ways, Aquino's legacy is tied to his historic efforts, gaining momentum in 2011, to resume long-stalled negotiations with the MILF, which is considered as the most powerful insurgency group in the country with as many as 11,000 troops among its ranks.

Four days after the tragic incident, the negotiating parties took an important step in peace negotiations by signing the protocols for the decommissioning of the MILF troops' firearms.

Nevertheless, Aquino faces a brewing political backlash among the electorate, with many Filipinos decrying the government's mishandling of the entire operation as well as questioning the merits of negotiating with the MILF.

To save the peace process, Aquino confronts the difficult balancing act of reaching out to the families and friends of the slain police commandos, on one hand, and maintaining functional channels of communications with the MILF leadership, on the other.

Richard Javad Heydarian is a specialist in Asian geopolitical/economic affairs and author of "How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings."

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera