By Manuel Mogato
CAMP DARAPANAN, Philippines (Reuters) - The trust that the largest Muslim guerrilla group in the Philippines has in the government has been eroded by a clash in January in which 44 police commandos and 18 rebels were killed, a rebel leader told Reuters in an interview this week.
The violence has throw into doubt a peace process aimed at ending a 45-year conflict that has killed 120,000 people, displaced 2 million and stunted growth in the resource-rich south of the largely Christian Philippines.
Public outrage over the killing of the policemen and questions surrounding President Benigno Aqunio's handling of the issue have blow up into his biggest political crisis.
"Trust has been affected," Al Haj Ebrahim Murad, chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) guerrilla group, told Reuters in an interview at his base on Mindano island.
"We are studying to see if the approval of the police operation came from the highest level of government."
The Jan. 25 clash erupted when police tried to infiltrate into a rebel area to capture Zulkifli bin Hir, an al Qaeda-linked Malaysian bomb-maker with a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head.
The government said at the time the incident was a mistake and Aquino appealed for the peace process to remain on track but legislators working out an autonomy deal upon which peace hinges have stopped their work.
Police said in a report on Friday that Aquino had approved the mission. Aquino has said he was given wrong information and misled.
Murad did not say what the MILF will do if Aquino was found liable for the police mission but said it was a violation of the ceasefire.
A civil engineer by training, Murad said he met Aquino on Jan. 13 to raise concern about the delays to the autonomy law in Congress but he was not informed about the operation to get the militant.
"Based on our findings, it was not a mistaken encounter," he said, adding the police saw his group as an enemy.
"They attacked our community and our forces."
But he said the rebels were committed to the peace process and would work with a new government if the talks went beyond the end of Aquino's term, in June 2016.
"The president's political capital is dwindling and there's a possibility the (autonomy law) will not be passed on time," Murad said as uniformed guerrillas stood guard.
"The next president, whoever is elected next year, is bound to implement the peace agreement."
But he warned that the MILF would not accept watered down autonomy. Aquino and his allies in Congress hope the autonomy law will be passed by June.
(Editing by Robert Birsel)