Philippine rebels say fighting puts talks in peril
MANILA, July 4: Peace talks to end nearly 40 years of Muslim rebellion in the southern Philippines may be threatened by sporadic fighting on Mindanao island, the rebels' chief negotiator said today.
Thousands of villages have fled the fighting and negotiator Mohaqher Iqbal accused some soldiers of openly taking sides in battles since last week between Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels and paramilitary forces in central Mindanao.
''It's certainly a setback to the talks,'' Iqbal told Reuters by phone, warning that the government's failure to restrain its troops ''may erode the MILF's trust and confidence''.
The MILF has been negotiating with the government of the mainly Roman Catholic country since 1997 to halt a conflict that has killed more than 120,000 people and held back development of the south, which is rich in oil, minerals and agricultural goods.
Iqbal said army regulars, backed by three armoured vehicles, were in action on Monday against MILF positions in Shariff Aguak town, where seven people were killed last month by a bomb aimed at the powerful governor of Maguindanao province, Andal Ampatuan.
Colonel Alex Cabales, the army's deputy division commander, said soldiers and tanks were deployed along the main highway to prevent rebels from encroaching on urban centres, denying troops were directly involved in the clashes.
''The latest incident of conflict is an isolated case that has not dented the overall spirit of the peace process,'' said Ignacio Bunye, a spokesman for President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, adding the military was ordered to restore order and help evacuees.
''The government is determined to pursue peace and development while taking all effective means to stop terrorism and bringing to justice those who have engaged in bombings and depredations.'' Yesterday evening, hundreds of paramilitaries laid seige to a farming village in Shariff Aguak occupied by Muslim rebels for nearly a week, advancing under cover of howitzer and mortar fire.
Several houses in the village were on fire as the rebels withdrew. They were expected to launch a counter-attack, said Colonel Tristan Kison, an army spokesman. Kison said paramilitary forces from other Maguindanao towns were sent to Shariff Aguak as reinforcements, prompting thousands of civilians from seven towns to flee their homes and farms.
The paramilitary forces are civilians trained and armed by the military to help defend their communities, but analysts say they are used by local politicians as private armies.
TENT CITIES Church and non-government groups have appealed to the rebels and paramilitaries to end the clashes as food, water, clothing and bedding have run low at several temporary shelters.
Relief workers said they feared the fighting could spill into neighbouring towns and escalate into a full-blown conflict that would put the Malaysian-brokered peace talks at risk.
The MILF has stuck to a ceasefire for three years but the talks have stalled since May over the size and wealth of a proposed Muslim homeland.
Yesterday, MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu said rebel forces were ordered to stand down at the request of Malaysian truce monitors.
Kabalu said the MILF has lost five fighters and about 10 more were wounded in the week-long clashes, claiming his group killed nearly 40 members of the paramilitary forces.
Kabalu said the MILF blamed local politicians for the violence, accusing Ampatuan the provincial governor of ignoring appeals from the Malaysian monitors, as well as the government and rebel ceasefire panels, to rein in the paramilitary forces.