Philippine govt, rebels in standoff over commander

November 2, 2011 - 1:00 AM

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippine military said Wednesday it will continue to hunt down a fugitive guerrilla commander accused of beheading marines after the country's largest Muslim rebel group vowed not to surrender him.

The standoff over Moro Islamic Liberation Front commander Dan Laksaw Asnawi hanged over already shaky peace talks that are expected to resume Thursday in Malaysia, which has been brokering negotiations to end decades of bloody Muslim insurgency in the southern Philippines.

Military spokesman Col. Arnulfo Marcelo Burgos said law enforcement operations aimed at capturing Asnawi on southern Basilan island will continue but stressed that the rebel group was not the target. Asnawi escaped from jail in 2009.

Nineteen troops were killed Oct. 18 in a failed attempt to arrest him in the biggest military loss in years. It led to calls for President Benigno Aquino III to break a truce and order an offensive against the 11,000-strong rebels.

Aquino rejected the calls and decided to pursue talks. He ordered a probe to find out what sparked the ambush.

"We will uphold the law and arrest these criminal elements. The MILF is not a target but if its members will provide sanctuary or coddle these lawless elements, then they will become legitimate targets," said Col. Dickson Hermoso, who heads the military office monitoring the peace talks.

Rebel vice chairman Ghadzali Jaafar denied Asnawi's involvement in the 2007 beheadings. He said that any lawbreaking guerrilla should be punished by the rebel group and not the government.