ZAMBOANGA - President Gloria Arroyo has called for the "annihilation" of Muslim extremists in the southern Philippines after 23 soldiers died in a bloody battle, her defence minister said Saturday.
"The war against terror must be pursued. The annihilation of the Abu Sayyaf must be done," Defence Secretary Gilbert Teodoro quoted Arroyo as saying.
She had 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, Teodoro said.
Arroyo made the remarks in Zamboanga, where she visited wounded soldiers and attended a wake for troopers killed while fighting the Abu Sayyaf Muslim extremists on southern Basilan island on Thursday.
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.
"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, Teodoro told reporters.
Twenty-three 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.
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.
Teodoro did not say whether additional forces would be sent to Basilan to help operations against the extremists but he stressed that the government had gained "momentum" against the rebels after capturing a major Abu Sayyaf camp.
The Abu Sayyaf, formed in the early 1990s with support from Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, has been linked to the Philippines' worst terror attacks, including deadly bombings and mass kidnappings.
The larger MILF has been waging an Islamic separatist campaign in the southern Philippines for 30 years but five years ago signed a ceasefire with the government to negotiate for peace.
Although the peace talks collapsed in August 2008 after MILF commanders attacked Christian communities in the south, both sides have recently taken steps to resume the talks.