Manila, Philippines — The head of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines said it was up to President Benigno Aquino III to decide whether he should resign, "after prayerful discernment."
Aquino was facing a growing cry for his resignation, with a few individual bishops joining the call, a week-and-a-half after 44 police troops were killed in one of the bloodiest encounters with Muslim rebels in recent history.
Archbishop Socrates Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan, conference president, said in a statement Feb. 4 that the conference does not have a collective position on whether Aquino should resign, especially since it does not have enough information. He added it was not clear "what truly happened" in Mamasapano and that conflicting accounts have been reported.
Protesters have said Aquino was ultimately responsible for the deaths after a police raid to bring in a suspected international terrorist went awry. Government officials said Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighters ambushed the commandos in a hard-to-navigate, remote area of Mamasapano, a rebel stronghold. The rebels said the troops gave no warning ahead of the operation and cried foul over what they said was the government's "lack of coordination" with them.
Villegas emphasized the need for a "credible" truth commission or fact-finding body.
"The CBCP therefore strongly suggests that the members of any such committee, though appointed by the president, must be endorsed by and acceptable to the public, recognized for their probity, acknowledged for their truthfulness and characterized by their boldness," he said.
Philippine Vice President Jejomar Binay said Feb. 3 the truth commission should not be made up of presidential appointees and suggested some church leaders be included.
Multiple investigations are underway, with lawmakers calling for even more groups to look into the incident. Congress is currently scrutinizing a proposed law that would create the Bangsamoro autonomous region in Muslim-majority Mindanao, but the deadly clash placed some deliberations on hold, pending investigation results.
The government and rebels signed a peace accord last March, and negotiators from both sides are in the midst of guiding implementation of the agreement through various steps in the peace process. The cease-fire between them had gone unbroken for about three years.