In a major policy shift, the Philippine president, Gloria Arroyo, has scrapped a government peace panel seeking to end a deadly and drawn-out separatist rebellion in the country's south. The move threatens the future of a five-year-old ceasefire between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (Milf) which has been fighting for an independent Islamic state for the best part of four decades.
Mrs Arroyo's spokesman, Jesus Dureza, confirmed the decision but declined to give details, saying an official announcement would be made later in the day. The move signals a dramatic change in Mrs Arroyo's long-standing policy of continuing a peace process with the Milf in a bid to end their rebellion before her presidential term expires in 2010. About five per cent of Filipinos in the country are Muslim, making them the largest minority in the mainly Roman Catholic nation, whose military has been battling separatists in the southern Mindanao region in a deadly campaign.
Mrs Arroyo said in a statement that her government would no longer sign a controversial draft agreement that would have given the Milf autonomy over their own Muslim homeland. "In the light of the recent violent incidents committed by lawless violent groups, the government will no longer sign the agreement," she said. "There will be no peace gained through violence, no peace agreement can and will be reached through intimidation or the barrel of a gun," she said.
On Aug 4, the country's supreme court issued an injunction against the deal after it triggered widespread street protests in Christian towns in the south who were left in the dark about the negotiations. Angered by the court freeze, two hard-line Milf leaders Umbra Kato and Abdurahman Macapaar launched deadly raids across dozens of villages in towns on Mindanao island. The raids left nearly 50 civilians and soldiers dead, while succeeding military offensives have so far killed more than 100 Milf rebels and led to the capture of more than a dozen rebel camps.
Mohagher Iqbal, the Milf's chief peace negotiator, said Mrs Arroyo's move signaled the government was preparing to intensify its military attacks to include the entire rebel force and not just the two commanders. "I don't want to imagine that happening, but the Milf is prepared for any offensive," Mr Iqbal said. "We have to invoke our right to self defence." He said the Milf leadership has not been officially informed of Mrs Arroyo's decision through Malaysia, which has been brokering the peace talks.
Mrs Arroyo said the peace process would only move forward after the government widens its consultations to include local executives in areas to be covered by the new autonomous region. * AFP