The most wanted terrorist suspect in the Philippines has died in a shootout in the country's violence-wracked south, amid conflicting accounts over the circumstances under which he was gunned down.
Filipino bomb-maker Abdul Basit Usman, who has links to the Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) terrorist network, was shot dead Sunday during a firefight in Maguindanao province, Philippine military chief General Gregorio Catapang said.
But he hastened to add that it remained unclear who killed Usman, Agence France-Presse reported.
"Basit Usman is dead, as to the circumstances of what happened during that encounter, it's up to (the investigation)," Catapang told reporters, according to AFP.
According to military sources, five followers of Usman – who has a U.S. $1 million bounty on his head offered by the U.S. State Department – had also died in the battle, and some of his own men may have double-crossed him.
Usman was killed while being escorted by members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the nation's biggest rebel group, said its vice chairman, Ghazali Jaafar.
"We can confirm that Usman is dead and his body was buried in accordance with Muslim tradition," Jaafar told AFP, although he refused to say who killed him.
The MILF is moving to finalize a peace accord signed in March 2014 with the government. The deal, brokered by Malaysia, aims to end 45 years of fighting in which about 120,000 people have died and two million others have been displaced.
Jaafar said Usman was killed as MILF rebels escorted him to the group's leaders to surrender, adding that he probably did not know he was being taken back to the MILF leaders.
"There was a firefight along the way. Usman could have sensed that he was being double-crossed," Jaafar said, refusing to give any more details.
Reuters quoted military chief Catapang as saying he had information that Usman's followers had turned on him because of the $1-million bounty, but the general did not elaborate.
His account was contradicted by the MILF. The MILF's chief peace negotiator, Mohagher Iqbal, told Reuters that its forces killed Usman when he resisted arrest.
MILF forces intercepted Usman’s group near a creek at around 10:30 a.m. (local time) Sunday, but he chose to shoot it out rather than be taken to the guerrilla's main camp, Iqbal said.
Both Catapang and Iqbal said that Usman's death would be a boost to the peace efforts.
"Our security operations will continue until we get all the potential spoilers to the peace process," Catapang said, adding there were still 10 foreign Islamist militants and about 100 local renegade Islamist militants in the south, according to Reuters.
Questions about MILF’s reliability
Security forces had been hunting Usman since he escaped from a police raid in January that killed Malaysian Zulkifli bin Hir, alias Marwan, an alleged bomb maker and one of Southeast Asia’s most wanted terror suspects who had a $5-million U.S. government bounty on his head.
The January raid, conducted in MILF territory, also led to the deaths of 44 Filipino police commandoes as rebels fought back, setting back efforts to finalize the peace deal.
Following the botched operation, Philippine President Benigno Aquino’s popularity ratings plunged to their lowest in five years.
The MILF has since been under heavy pressure from Philippine authorities and lawmakers to demonstrate its reliability as a peace partner.
The Philippine military has provided a photo of the body of Usman, whom U.S. and Philippine authorities have blamed for deadly bomb attacks and for providing bomb-making training to al-Qaeda-linked fighters in the southern Philippines.
Catapang said he would recommend that a DNA sample from Usman’s body be sent to the United States for testing and identification, as the government had done in verifying Marwan’s death, U.S. broadcasting network CNN reported.
He said Usman's death dealt a major setback to the MILF's splinter group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), which had coddled Usman and Marwan for a long time, according to CNN.
The MILF, which has about 10,000 fighters, agreed under last year's peace deal to give up its independence ambitions in exchange for an autonomous Muslim government in the south, in which they would be granted wider powers over the region’s economic, political and social matters.
Working toward a 2016 deadline
The government and the MILF are working to finalize the deal within the year before President Aquino leaves office.
Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary Herminio Coloma was quoted by the Philippine Star newspaper as saying that MILF’s help in eliminating Usman could be considered proof of the rebel group’s sincerity.
But it would be up to lawmakers to assess the situation and see how it could affect deliberations on a proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) aimed at setting up the autonomous government, he said.
With the death of Usman, the military is now setting its sights on two foreign terrorists in the southern Philippines.
Catapang has said that security forces would eventually pin down Malaysian bomber Amin Baco and Singaporean militant Muawiyah, both cohorts of Usman, who are believed to have ties with other Asian extremists, the Philippine Star reported.
“They are next in line, but we cannot tell you the pecking order,” Catapang said.
By BenarNews staff with details from news reports.