MANILA, Oct 2 (Reuters) Malaysia has threatened to withdraw monitors overseeing a four-year ceasefire between the Philippine army and the country's biggest Muslim separatist guerrilla group because of delays in peace talks, sources said today.
Tension has risen lately between the army and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), with each side accusing the other of breaking the truce during a skirmish on the island of Basilan last week.
Today, at least four Navy commandos and 10 rebels died in another firefight on Basilan, as Philippine troops pursued the Abu Sayyaf group, which has close links with the MILF.
A resumption in peace talks, scheduled to take place in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur next month, is in doubt again after four postponements. The talks broke down a year ago amid disagreements over the size and wealth of a proposed ancestral homeland for Muslims on the southern island of Mindanao.
Government and rebel sources told Reuters the Malaysian government was getting impatient, and threatened during an informal meeting in Kuala Lumpur last week to recall its 60 monitors to pressure the sides to resume talks.
Mohaqher Iqbal, the rebels' chief negotiator, told Reuters in a phone interview from his hideout on Mindanao that any withdrawal of Malaysian soldiers would endanger the truce and harm implementation of development projects.
''If that happens, it would have a big impact on the peace process,'' Iqbal said.
Unarmed Malaysian soldiers have been in Mindanao since 2004 as part of an effort to end nearly 40 years of conflict that has killed more than 120,000 people and displaced 2 million.
Libya and Brunei also have small contingents in the monitoring team.
Iqbar said last week's meeting in Kuala Lumpur had been ''productive'' but had failed to fix a date for formal talks.
NOT POLES APART ''Our differences were not really poles apart, we've narrowed the gaps from where we started two years ago,'' Iqbar said.
''But our counterparts could not commit to anything without the approval of the political leadership in Manila,'' he said.
''The government must have political will to conclude the peace process.'' Last week, the military accused MILF members of helping a band of Abu Sayyaf rebels during a firefight on Basilan island and threatened to file a protest to a ceasefire panel.
The MILF countered by saying Philippine troops had entered rebel territory without coordinating with the panel, and had attacked one of its camps.
There was no word on any MILF involvement in Tuesday's fighting, sparked by a pre-dawn raid on a suspected Abu Sayyaf hideout.
Mindanao has been a focus of international attention because Western governments believe it has been a training base for islamic militants with links to Al Qaeda and regional group Jemaah Islamiah.
Japan has been funding about 1 million dollars worth of social and economic projects, including repairs of school buildings and installation of potable water systems.
The World Bank has a separate $3 million project helping set up cooperatives to start and manage small businesses, such as copra and rice production.
Canada, Sweden and the United States have also expressed keen interest in funding post-conflict livelihood projects and helping facilitate the negotiations brokered by Malaysia since 2001.
''I hope the government realises what it stands to lose if the peace process fails,'' Iqbal said.
REUTERS ARB HS1528