MANILA – The military is verifying reports that wanted bomb maker Abdul Basit Usman died during a gun fight within his group, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief of staff General Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr. said Monday.
Speaking to reporters, Catapang confirmed Usman's death but said the military is still gathering and verifying pieces of information about the wanted terrorist's demise.
Catapang said he received reports that Usman died after his own men started fighting each other on Sunday.
"There was in-fighting among his bodyguards. Because we were able to kill his most of his trusted bodyguards -- when he was killed, he had 7 bodyguards -- but these bodyguards were not the most loyal to him," he said.
He said the military is still verifying whether Usman, who carries a $1 million bounty on his head, was killed when the infighting broke out or after Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) fighters engaged Usman's men in a firefight.
''Nagpunta din ang MILF doon to verify. We are still finding out kung patay na si Usman nung dumating ang MILF o there was a firefight."
Earlier reports said Usman and five of his men died in an exchange of fire in Barangay Muti, Guindulungan, Maguindanao on Sunday.
Police and military reports had said that the MILF's 118th Base Command was the one which had an encounter with Usman's group.
Datu Gayat-Midtimbang, a Muti village elder, and Datu Toks Upam of the MILF-Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities both confirmed Usman's death.
Catapang said Usman's group may have tried to seek shelter near Camp Afgan in order to evade arrest. He said there is also a possibility that his group had no choice but to go near an MILF area due to the presence of government troops.
He said Camp Afgan was serving as a temporary camp for the MILF as the military launched an intensified operation to hunt down Usman and other members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).
"Nung nag all-out offensive, we asked the MILF to step aside. They went to the area - they call it Camp Afgan - iyung malapit nga sa area na na-enkwentro si Basit,'' he said.
Catapang also did not confirm that a photo of a dead man given by an ABS-CBN source is indeed Usman.
He said: "We have people on the ground who saw him physically. He was seen being buried."
SETBACK FOR BIFF
Catapang said Usman's death is a huge setback for the BIFF, which has rejected the peace talks between the government and MILF.
''It's a setback on the part of the BIFF because there will be no one to teach them to bomb [anymore],'' he said.
Usman and Malaysian bomb maker Zulkifli bin Hir, alias Marwan, were the subject of a January 25 Special Action Force (SAF) operation in Mamasapano, Maguindanao.
Marwan was killed during the raid, but Usman managed to escape.
Forty-four police commandos were killed by MILF fighters and other lawless elements during the January 25 operation, casting doubts over the MILF's sincerity in the peace process.
The raid was conducted in what was believed to be an MILF bailiwick. The Moro group has insisted that its fighters only acted in self-defense when the police commandos swooped down on the area without proper coordination.
With public trust with the MILF eroded due to the clash, the fate of the Bangsamoro Basic Law – a product of the peace talks between the Aquino administration and the MILF – has been put in peril.
The clash also drove a wedge between the police and military, after the latter was accused of failing to reinforce the besieged policemen.
Suffering from a huge public outrage over the huge police casualty, President Benigno Aquino III vowed to have Usman neutralized.
The government said it will file charges against 90 individuals over the carnage.