President Gloria Arroyo has called for the "annihilation" of Muslim extremists from the southern Philippines after a bloody battle left 23 soldiers dead. "The war against terror must be pursued. The annihilation of the Abu Sayyaf must be done," the defence secretary Gilbert Teodoro quoted Ms Arroyo as saying. She also warned that members of the Muslim separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), who joined in the slaughter of the soldiers, would be hunted down despite a ceasefire with the rebel group, Mr Teodoro said.
The president made the remarks in a command conference in Zamboanga, where she visited wounded soldiers and attended the wake of the troops killed fighting the Abu Sayyaf Muslim extremists on southern Basilan island on Thursday. Mr Teodoro warned that the government also knew which MILF groups had aided the Abu Sayyaf in the fighting and warned that the government would go after them as well. "Those who were involved in the attacks will also be included among those to be neutralised and arrested," he said, referring to the MILF.
"There are cases we have already filed against them and we have filed protests," with the international group monitoring the government's ceasefire with the MILF, Mr Teodoro told reporters. Some 23 soldiers and 20 Abu Sayyaf members were killed when the military overran a training camp run by the militants on Basilan. MILF fighters have been identified as helping the Abu Sayyaf in the fighting despite having a ceasefire with the government. Press reports say the rebels mutilated the bodies of the slain soldiers.
Mr Teodoro warned the MILF leadership that if they attempt to use the peace process to shield their fighters who took part in the violence, "then they are countenancing this illegal activity". However he said operations against the MILF in Basilan should not affect efforts to revive the peace talks. "We know their command and control in Basilan is loose and the leaders there make their own decisions," he said.
Mr Teodoro did not say that additional forces would be sent to Basilan to help in the operations against the extremists but he stressed that the government side had the "momentum" against the rebels as they had just captured a major Abu Sayyaf camp. *AFP