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Philippine rebels, paramilitaries halt clashes

Written by: Staff
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MANILA, July 6 (Reuters) A week of fighting between Muslim rebels and paramilitary forces stopped today as Philippine officials mediated an end to clashes that threatened peace talks in the south, rebel and government officials said.

Jesus Dureza, the president's peace adviser, held discussions separately with some leaders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and local politicians in control of paramilitary forces to restore normalcy.

Dureza also toured temporary shelters in Shariff Aguak town, where seven people were killed on June 23 by a bomb aimed at the powerful governor of Maguindanao province, Andal Ampatuan, an incident that triggered the recent hostilities.

''We have an initial arrangement. We hope it could stop the physical fighting on the ground,'' said Ramon Santos, a retired general and head of the government's truce panel.

Santos told Reuters the arrangement included the setting up of a buffer zone where soldiers, members of paramilitary forces and Muslim rebels would be prohibited from carrying guns.

''We can't technically call it a ceasefire because there's already one in place since 2003 between the government and the MILF,'' Santos said.

''There will be no movement of forces, no provocative actions and an effort to end hostilities.'' There were no reported skirmishes on Thursday, a day after fierce battles erupted in Datu Unsay town as Muslim guerrillas reclaimed areas taken by paramilitary forces early this week.

Mohaqher Iqbal, the MILF chief peace negotiator, said his group had been in contact with Ampatuan's camp to find ways to end the clashes that displaced nearly 20,000 people.

''We have no quarrel with the governor and we're willing to help in the investigation of the bomb attack,'' Iqbal told Reuters by phone.

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 hampered development of the south, which is rich in oil, minerals and agricultural goods.

On Tuesday, the MILF and paramilitary forces agreed to a six-hour truce to allow relief workers to check on conditions of civilians caught in the crossfire.

Residents complained dozens of houses were burned down and that crops and farm animals were destroyed by howitzer and mortar shelling by paramilitary forces since last week.

Santos said members of the government and rebel truce panels, accompanied by Red Cross officials, will tour the conflict areas to assess the damage and distribute humanitarian assistance.

REUTERS SK RS1331

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