Manila: Philippine troops have recovered the bodies of six more soldiers following fierce fighting with the country`s largest Muslim rebel group that has sent both sides scrambling to stop the violence from further damaging shaky peace talks.
Tuesday`s fighting on southern Basilan island between Army special forces and members of the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front killed at least 25 combatants.
One soldier reported missing was rescued late Wednesday and another was found early Thursday in the sea near the scene of the fighting, swimming toward a military detachment, Army spokesman Colonel Antonio Parlade said.
The bodies of the six soldiers were recovered on Wednesday. The bodies bore hack wounds, indicating they were captured and then killed, Parlade said.
The battle was one of the deadliest since 2008, when peace talks bogged down and ignited widespread clashes that killed hundreds and displaced 750,000 people.
The rebels have waged a bloody insurgency for self-rule in the southern Mindanao region, the homeland of minority Muslims in the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines. The conflict has killed more than 120,000 people in nearly four decades.
Since the clashes in 2008, a Malaysia-led peacekeeping contingent has kept watch to prevent further battles and keep the atmosphere ripe for peace talks.
The military and the guerrillas blamed each other for starting Tuesday`s clash and planned to protest before a joint government-rebel cease-fire committee. Government negotiator Marvic Leonen said that the clash was accidental and that peace talks would continue.
The military initially reported 13 soldiers were killed and 13 others wounded. Troops found six more bodies near the battle scene in remote Al-Barka town, bringing the military death toll in the clash to 19, said regional military commander Lt Gen Raymundo Ferrer.
President Benigno Aquino III called a meeting with the defence chief and military officials for Friday to discuss the military setback.
Rebel spokesman Von Al Haq said five rebels were slain on Tuesday. Police reported six rebels were killed.
Cabangbang said on Wednesday that the clashes had stopped and that the military had asked the joint government-rebel cease-fire committee to allow them to search for the missing soldiers in the Moro rebels` Al-Barka stronghold.
Al Haq, however, said rebels from his group have reported they are not holding any captives. Several Army soldiers apparently fled during the clash into nearby communities and some were shot as they ran away, he said.
"Our men have been ordered not to advance or attack unless they come under attack," Al Haq said. "Hopefully we can diffuse this with the other side."
Malaysian-led peacekeepers are trying to pacify both sides, Al Haq said.
It was not immediately clear if al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf militants, known for beheading soldiers, got involved in Tuesday`s clashes. The militants are active in Basilan, a predominantly Muslim island about 550 miles (880 kilometres) south of Manila, and some are relatives of the Moro rebels.