Philippine rebel group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) forces have been on alert against government troops as the MILF has rejected ultimatum the military imposed asking them to surrender its members involved in the killing, beheading and mutilating of 14 government soldiers, said an MILF spokesman on Sunday.
The military has said it would launch "punitive actions against the perpetrators" of the killing and beheading of the Marine soldiers if the MILF leadership fails to comply with its one-week ultimatum which hit the deadline Sunday.
"The MILF leadership is asking its forces to be on high alert, especially in Basilan, for the military actions cannot turn over our forces, that's final," said MILF chief negotiator and spokesman Mohaguer Iqbal in a telephone interview with local media.
Iqbal said the MILF Central Committee has made the consensus not to turn in its members who figured in what he said was a " legitimate encounter" as the government troops entered MILF zone of control first. He also said it was not likely for the committee to reverse its decision.
The MILF, which has some 10,000 armed fighters in Mindanao, claimed engagement with troops on July 10 in the Tipo-Tipo village in Basilan, 900 kilometers south of Manila, in which 14 government soldiers were killed, 10 of them found beheaded or mutilated. But MILF denied beheading or mutilating them.
The soldiers were reportedly looking for the missing Italian priest Giancarlo Bossi when they were ambushed by the rebels. Bossi was released last Friday after being held hostage in Mindanao for 40 days by Abu Sayyaf rebels.
"There is no moral basis (to surrender the MILF members) because that is a legitimate encounter. There is no basis for that in the ceasefire agreement," the MILF spokesman said in reference to a 2003 truce agreement reached with the mediation of Malaysia, Brunei and Libya.
Iqbal said earlier under the ceasefire agreement, it is the MILF who should be imposing penalties on its own members who are found to have committed "wrongdoing." An MILF probe has cleared its members of any offense in the incident.
A military spokesman said on Sunday the military will not extend the deadline if the MILF fails to comply.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines public information office chief, Lt. Col. Bartolome Bacarro, said the message is " reiteration of the call for the MILF to present the perpetrators of the barbaric act."
He denied the military would launch an all-out war against MILF in Basilan, but only a "punitive action."