Category: United Islands of the Philippines

February 22, 2019

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Unlike many of his slain comrades, the touted new leader of the Islamic State group in the southern Philippines lacks the bravado, clan name or foreign training. Not much is known about Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, but the attacks attributed to him heralding his rise are distinctly savage: A deadly bombing, which authorities say was a suicide attack by a foreign militant couple, blasted through a packed Roman Catholic cathedral in the middle of a Mass.

The Jan. 27 attack, which killed 23 people and wounded about 100 others on southern Jolo Island, and another suspected suicide bombing on nearby Basilan Island last July that officials said he masterminded, put Sawadjaan in the crosshairs of the U.S.-led global campaign against terrorism. It also comes at a time when the Islamic State group’s last enclave in eastern Syria is near its imminent downfall, signaling an end to the territorial rule of the self-declared “caliphate” that once stretched across much of Syria and Iraq.

A recent U.S. Department of Defense report to Congress said without elaborating that it believed Sawadjaan was the “acting emir,” or leader, in the Philippines of the Islamic State group, also known by its acronym ISIS. It added that no actual leader is confirmed to have been designated by the main ISIS command in the Middle East as of late last year.

Philippine Interior Secretary Eduardo Ano, however, said intelligence indicated that Sawadjaan, a Jolo-based commander of the brutal Abu Sayyaf extremist group, was installed as ISIS chief in a ceremony last year. Three other extremist groups were recognized as ISIS allies, he said.

Founded in the early 1990s as an offshoot of the decadeslong Muslim separatist rebellion in the south, the Abu Sayyaf lost its commanders early in battle, sending it to a violent path of terrorism and criminality. It has been blacklisted, along with ISIS-linked local groups, as a terrorist organization by the United States.

Now in his 60s, Sawadjaan is a late bloomer in the terrorism underworld. His turn at the helm came after dozens of commanders, some initially aligned with the al-Qaida movement and later with ISIS, were killed or captured in decades of military offensives. The biggest battle loss came in 2017 when several foreign and local commanders were killed as troops quelled a five-month siege by hundreds of militants in southern Marawi city.

Among those killed was Isnilon Hapilon, a fierce Abu Sayyaf leader, who was the first ISIS-designated leader in the Philippines. “I think Sawadjaan rose in rank because of seniority and there were no other leaders left. Almost everyone had been wiped out,” said Ano, a former military chief who oversaw the Marawi offensives and now supervises the national police as interior secretary.

Largely confined to Jolo’s poverty-wracked mountain settlements all his life, Sawadjaan was not the well-connected and media-savvy strategist foreign groups would normally ally with to expand their reach. His rise shows how ISIS would latch on desperately to any militant who could provide a sanctuary and armed fighters as its last strongholds crumble in Syria, Ano said.

“For the ISIS to perpetuate their terror actions, they need a base, they need people. That’s the role of Sawadjaan,” Ano told The Associated Press in an interview. He estimated that Sawadjaan commands about 200 combatants and followers.

Sawadjaan was born to a peasant family in predominantly Muslim Jolo and only likely finished grade school. Poverty drove him to work as a lumberjack in the jungles off Patikul town, where he married a woman from Tanum, the mountain village where he would base his Abu Sayyaf faction years later, a military officer, who has closely monitored the Abu Sayyaf, told the AP on condition of anonymity because of the nature of his work.

As an elderly villager, he served as a local mosque preacher, earning him the religious sobriquet “hatib,” or sermon leader in Arabic, the officer said. Sawadjaan first took up arms as a member of the Moro National Liberation Front, the largest Muslim secessionist group in the south of the largely Roman Catholic country, which went on to sign a 1996 Muslim autonomy deal with the government, according to the officer.

His commander was Radulan Sahiron, the locally popular one-armed rebel who broke away from the MNLF in 1992. They joined the Abu Sayyaf, which had just been organized by a Libyan-educated local militant, said MNLF leader Yusop Jikiri.

Sawadjaan would later part ways with Sahiron, including over Sahiron’s refusal to accomodate foreign militants for fear they’re a magnet for military airstrikes, said Abu Jihad, a former militant who has met Sawadjaan and was captured by troops. Abu Jihad described Sawadjaan as a folksy village elderly, who constantly lugged an M-16 rifle in his hinterland community but was friendly to visitors.

When fellow militants kidnapped a visiting American Muslim convert, Jeffrey Schilling, for ransom in August 2000, Sawadjaan stayed in the background but helped gather bamboos that were used to build huts for the militants and their hostage, Abu Jihad said.

“He can discuss local issues but didn’t have any wisdom on jihad,” he told AP by phone, referring to the militants’ concept of holy war. “He’s very accommodating. He’s the type who will not be hard to sway.”

Sawadjaan collaborated with diverse outlaws, both Islamic extremists and brigands, Ano said. He harbored the foreign couple, believed by Philippine officials to be Indonesians, who detonated the bombs in the Jolo cathedral last month, as well as a militant believed to be an Arab known as Abu Kathir al-Maghribi, who died in the van blast that also killed 10 government militiamen and villagers in Basilan last year, Ano added.

A video obtained by police officials showed al-Maghribi in Sawadjaan’s camp last year before the foreign militant reportedly carried out the suicide attack in Basilan. The video was seen by The AP. His daughter married a Malaysian militant known as Amin Baco, who has ISIS connections. His younger brother, Asman, also belonged to the Abu Sayyaf, according to a confidential police profile of Sawadjaan.

Sawadjaan and his men would later be implicated in the kidnappings of a German couple, two Canadian men, Schilling and a Jordanian journalist, Baker Atyani. Most were ransomed off or escaped but the Canadian men were separately beheaded on video by one of Sawadjaan’s militant nephews, Ben Yadah, according to military and police officials.

In the more than a year of jungle captivity under Sawadjaan’s group starting in June 2012, Atyani got a deep insight into the Abu Sayyaf and the man who sheltered other militants from Indonesia and Malaysia and fostered banditry in the blurry underworld of Islamic extremism in the volatile south. Atyani is believed to have been freed in exchange for ransom.

“It’s all money-driven, it’s not an ideology,” Atyani said. “However, he has sympathy for those who are allegedly fighting for a cause.”

July 26, 2018

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has signed legislation creating a new Muslim autonomous region aimed at settling nearly half a century of Muslim unrest in the south, where troops crushed an attempt last year by Islamic State group-linked militants to turn a city into a stronghold.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque and another key aide, Bong Go, told reporters without elaborating late Thursday that Duterte signed the bill creating the region, to be called Bangsamoro. The autonomy deal, which has been negotiated for more than two decades under four presidents, was ratified earlier this week by both chambers of Congress.

“This is to announce that the president has just signed the BOL into law,” Roque said in a cellphone message, referring to the Bangsamoro organic law. It’s the latest significant attempt by the government to end Muslim fighting that has left more than 120,000 people dead and hampered development in the country’s most destitute regions. The deal was negotiated with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the largest Muslim rebel group in the south, although about half a dozen smaller IS-linked radical groups remain a threat in the region, the homeland of minority Muslims in the largely Roman Catholic nation.

Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, chairman of the Moro rebel front, told a news conference Tuesday that 30,000 to 40,000 armed fighters would be “decommissioned” if the autonomy deal is fully enforced. The disarming would be done in batches based on compliance with the accord, with the final 40 percent of the guerrillas turning over their weapons once there is full compliance.

Murad added that six of the largest guerrilla camps in the south were already being converted into “productive civilian communities” to help the insurgents return to normal life. Murad appealed to the international community to contribute to a trust fund to be used to finance the insurgents’ transition from decades of waging one of Asia’s longest rebellions.

“We will decommission our forces, the entire forces,” Murad said. He declined to immediately cite the number of weapons that “will be put beyond use.” The military has estimated the Moro rebel group’s size at a much lower 11,000 fighters.

The Bangsamoro replaces an existing poverty- and conflict-wracked autonomous region and is to be larger, better-funded and more powerful. An annual grant, estimated at 60 billion to 70 billion pesos ($1.1 billion to $1.3 billion), is to be set aside to bolster development in the new region.

Murad’s guerrilla force is the second in the south to drop a demand for a separate Muslim state in exchange for autonomy. The Moro National Liberation Front forged a 1996 peace deal with the government that led to the current five-province Muslim autonomous region, which has largely been regarded as a failure.

Western governments have welcomed the autonomy pacts. They worry that small numbers of Islamic State group-linked militants from the Middle East and Southeast Asia could forge an alliance with Filipino insurgents and turn the south into a breeding ground for extremists.

Murad said it’s crucial for the peace agreement to be fully enforced, citing how earlier failed attempts prompted some guerrillas to break away and form more hard-line groups like the Abu Sayyaf, a brutal group listed by the United States and the Philippines as a terrorist organization.

Hundreds of militants, including those who broke off from Murad’s force, were among black flag-waving fighters who swore allegiance to the Islamic State group and laid siege to the southern Islamic city of Marawi last year. Troops backed by U.S. and Australian surveillance aircraft routed the militants after five months of airstrikes and ground assaults that left more than 1,200 people, mostly Islamic fighters, dead and the mosque-studded city in ruins.

“We can roughly conclude that all these splinter groups are a result of the frustration with the peace process,” Murad said.

Tuesday, 28 November, 2017

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte vowed on Monday to correct “historical injustice” against minorities in his country as the government seeks to reestablish a peace process in the southern areas.

Muslims have been waging a rebellion seeking autonomy or independence in the mainly Catholic southern areas of Philippines, since the 1970’s. They regard the areas as their ancestral homeland, however the conflict resulted in the death of more than 120,000 persons in several areas of the southern region of Mindanao.

Duterte made the remarks at a gathering hosted by the country’s main Muslim guerrilla group, Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and attended by several Christians and Muslim factions and tribal groups.

Duterte takes pride in having Muslim ancestry and warned that the region could see worse violence if the issue is not resolved.

“What is at stake here is the preservation of the Filipino republic and to correct historical injustice,” Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported Duterte as saying.

In 2014, MILF, which includes 10,000 members, signed a peace deal that gave Muslim minority self-rule over parts of Mindanao, but the Filipino Congress didn’t approve the proposed law to implement the pact.

Duterte added that during the decades when the Philippines was under Spanish and then US colonial rule, Christian majority had taken control of vast parts of Mindanao, thus marginalizing native Muslims and other tribes.

He warned that the situation could aggravate if ISIS militants fled to the Philippines after losing their strongholds in the Middle East.

The President also indicated that he called the Congress to a special session where Muslim leaders could explain their plans to the legislators, adding that such a deal should include everyone and must be accepted by all groups in Mindanao.

MILF chairman Murad Ebrahim and Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) chairman Yusop Jikiri also attended the assembly, as well as archbishop of Cotabato and Mindanao’s highest Catholic Church official, Cardinal Orlando Quevedo.

In his speech, Murad said the government and the Moro groups must unite together to fight a common enemy, the violent extremists.

“We feel the obligation to assert for the enactment of the basic law not because it will win us votes but because it presents us a rare opportunity to be part of peacemaking,” Murad said.

Director of the government’s coordinating committee overseeing the peace accord Carlos Sol also said: “The importance here is that there is coexistence between Christians, Muslims and Lumads [tribal people]”.

Hundreds of thousands of people attended the gathering at the MILF headquarters.

MILF previously announced that half a million had registered to attend the assembly which was secured by unarmed MILF fighters accompanied by armed government soldiers and policemen.

Source: Asharq al-Awsat.


Isabela, Philippines (AFP)

July 21, 2016

Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte stepped up efforts to bring peace to the country’s insurgency-hit south during a visit there on Thursday, calling upon the Islamic militant group Abu Sayyaf to end its campaign of violence.

Speaking to local military and government leaders on the troubled island of Basilan, a base of the Abu Sayyaf group, Duterte said: “I am pleading for peace, even with the Abu Sayyaf. You have committed crimes, killing people… You are not thinking of anything but hatred.”

But Duterte, the first president to hail from the south and who claims Muslim ancestry, added that “every Filipino life is precious” and “we have to stop this war”.

The Abu Sayyaf is a loose network of a few hundred Islamic militants formed in the 1990s with seed money from Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network that has earned millions of dollars from kidnappings-for-ransom.

It is a radical offshoot of a decades-long Muslim separatist insurgency in the south of the mainly Catholic Philippines that has claimed more than 100,000 lives. The main Muslim rebel groups do not generally engage in kidnappings-for-ransom.

Duterte is known for his hardline stance against crime, even boasting of killing numerous criminals, but he he has called repeatedly for talks with all rebel groups.

Despite his message of peace, Duterte warned that if the group did not lay down its arms “soldiers will keep coming. That is the response of government”.

His visit came as troops were battling the Abu Sayyaf in the hinterlands of Basilan.

The military has said at least one soldier and over 30 Abu Sayyaf fighters were killed in weeks of fighting there.

Although its leaders have pledged allegiance to Islamic State, analysts say they are mainly focused on lucrative kidnappings.

While Duterte addressed troops, his chief peace negotiator Jesus Dureza held meetings with the country’s largest Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), elsewhere in the south.

The 12,000-strong MILF had hoped to seal a final peace deal under Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino, but legislators delayed passing legislation needed for the plan.

A ceasefire with the MILF, in place since 2003, has largely held but the Abu Sayyaf are not covered by the truce.

Source: Space War.


Manila (AFP)

April 12, 2016

The Philippine military has killed 25 Islamist guerrillas as it presses on with an offensive despite the loss of 18 soldiers, authorities said Tuesday.

Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin gave the toll of Abu Sayyaf fighters as fighting in the southern island of Basilan continued.

“Twenty-five are dead as of now,” he told reporters, adding that a senior Abu Sayyaf leader called Furuji Indama was among them.

“This is of major importance because the threat will now lessen because we have gotten one of their heads,” he told reporters.

The operation against the Abu Sayyaf suffered a major setback with the death of the 18 soldiers in an initial clash on Saturday.

However the government has said the drive will continue, adding it has already achieved a major objective with the killing of a Moroccan bomb-making instructor, Mohammad Khattab. He was said to be trying to link the Abu Sayyaf up with international groups.

Gazmin said he could not confirm if Khattab was affiliated with the Islamic State group that has captured large swathes of Syria and Iraq.

Military spokesman Brigadier General Restituto Padilla said that “even if we have suffered serious wounds, we are even more determined, so this fight will go on”.

The Abu Sayyaf, a small group of militants notorious for kidnapping foreigners and demanding huge ransoms, was established in the early 1990s with seed money from Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network.

Based in the southern islands of Basilan and Jolo, it has been blamed for the country’s worst terror attacks, including a 2004 Manila Bay ferry bombing that claimed 116 lives.

Its leaders have in recent years pledged allegiance to Islamic State.

However Padilla said that “up to now, we are still looking for firm proof directly linking them to a larger group” like Islamic State.

Local government offices said more than 500 villagers had fled the fighting in the heavily-forested island.

Source: Space War.


Manila (AFP)

March 27, 2014

The biggest Muslim rebel group in the Philippines signed an historic pact Thursday to end one of Asia’s longest and deadliest conflicts, promising to give up their arms for an autonomous homeland.

Following four decades of fighting that has claimed tens of thousands of lives; the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) signed the peace deal with President Benigno Aquino’s government at a high-profile ceremony in Manila.

“The comprehensive agreement on Bangsamoro is the crowning glory of our struggle,” MILF chairman Murad Ebrahim said at the signing ceremony, using a local term that refers to a Muslim homeland.

“With this agreement the legitimate aspirations of the Bangsamoro and the commitment of the government of the Philippines to recognize those aspirations are now sealed.”

The pact makes the MILF and the government partners in a plan to create a southern autonomous region for the Philippines’ Muslim minority with locally elected leaders by mid-2016.

“What is being presented before us now is a path that can lead to a permanent change in Muslim Mindanao,” Aquino said at the ceremony, attended by more than 1,000 people.

The Bangsamoro region would cover about 10 percent of territory in the mainly Catholic Philippines. The planned region has a majority of Muslims, but there are clusters of Catholic-dominated communities.

Muslim rebels have been battling since the 1970s for independence or autonomy in the southern islands of the Philippines, which they regard as their ancestral homeland dating back to when Arabic traders arrived there in the 13th Century.

The conflict has condemned millions of people across large parts of the resource-rich Mindanao region to brutal poverty, plagued by Muslim and Christian warlords as well as outbreaks of fighting that has led to mass displacements.

The conflict also created fertile conditions for Islamic extremism, with the Abu Sayyaf group and other hardline militants making remote regions of Mindanao their strongholds.

The MILF, which the military estimates has 10,000 fighters, is easily the biggest Muslim rebel group in Mindanao, and the political settlement was greeted with relief and optimism in the south.

“I am really happy. In the face of all the hardship of our parents, we the next generation hope and pray that Christians and Muslims will have peace,” Mona Rakman, 42, a mother of four who lives close to the MILF headquarters, told AFP.

The autonomous region would have its own police force, a regional parliament and power to levy taxes, while revenues from the region’s vast deposits of natural resources would be split with the national government.

It would have a secular government, rather than being an Islamic state. The national government would retain control over defense, foreign policy, currency and citizenship.

There are about 10 million Muslims in the Philippines, roughly 10 percent of the population, according to government statistics. Most live in the south of the country.

– Fragile peace –

However there are no guarantees the peace deal will be implemented by the middle of 2016, a crucial deadline as that is when Aquino is required by the constitution to end his six-year term.

Aquino needs to convince Congress to pass a “basic law” to create the Bangsamoro autonomous region, ideally by the end of this year to allow time for other steps such as a local plebiscite.

But even though Aquino enjoys record-high popularity ratings, there are concerns politicians could reject or water down the proposed law.

Powerful Christian politicians in Mindanao are regarded as potential deal breakers, while others elsewhere may see political advantage in opposing the deal to appeal to some Catholics ahead of the 2016 national elections.

The deal is also likely to be challenged in the Supreme Court, which in 2008 struck down a planned peace deal the MILF had negotiated with Aquino’s predecessor, Gloria Arroyo.

Islamic militants opposed to the peace deal are another threat, and could continue to create enduring violence in Mindanao.

Among the potential spoilers is the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), an MILF splinter group of a few hundred militants that has carried out deadly attacks in the south in recent years.

“We will continue to fight against the government of the Republic of the Philippines because we are for independence and nothing else,” BIFF spokesman Abu Missry Mama told AFP by phone from his southern hideout.

The MILF leadership has committed to working with the government to neutralize the threat of the BIFF.

However the MILF will not give up its arms or the identities of its fighters until the basic law has been passed, highlighting the fragility of Thursday’s peace deal.

In his speech, Aquino warned militant and political foes alike that he was prepared to crush any challenge to the peace deal.

“I will not let peace be snatched from my people again,” Aquino said to applause.

“Those who want to test the resolve of the state will be met with a firm response based on righteousness and justice.”

Source: Space War.


July 8, 2013

The military has halted its operations against the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF)—the armed wing of a breakaway faction of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)—in time for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, officials said Monday.

In a text message to reporters, deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said the military “will keep the peace during Ramadan” but “will act accordingly should harassment continue to persist.”

Maj. Gen. Romeo Gapuz, commander of the Philippine Army’s 6th Infantry Division, meanwhile said that troops have already “called off” their operations against the BIFF since they were only allowed three days to conduct operations against the group.

“We have to abide by that kasi ayaw naman natin na ma-derail ‘yung peace process,” Gapuz said in a separate interview.

He, however, added that government troops are “prepared” to “react” if the BIFF launches attacks during Ramadan.

2 clashes

On Saturday, five soldiers were killed in two separate attacks launched by the BIFF in Maguindanao and North Cotabato.

Col. Dickson Hermoso, spokesman for the Philippine Army’s 6th Infantry Division, said the attacks may have been launched by the BIFF to derail the peace talks between the Philippine government and the MILF, which formally resumed on Monday.

Last October, the government and the MILF signed a landmark framework agreement that would pave the way for the creation of a Bangsamoro territory to replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

MILF vice chairman for political affairs Ghazali Jaafar earlier appealed to the BIFF to support the preliminary peace agreement with the government.

Not a holiday

Meanwhile, Malacañang reminded the public that July 9, the start of Ramadan, is not a non-working holiday.

The Twitter account of the Philippine government’s official gazette made this reminder on Monday morning in response to queries it has been receiving.

Based on Proclamation No. 495, which lists all holidays this year, the next non-working holiday will be on August 21, or on Ninoy Aquino Day.

The government gazette also noted President Benigno Aquino III will issue separate proclamations declaring two other Muslim religious holidays—Eid’l Fitr and Eidul Adha—as national holidays.

Source: GMA Network.


October 08, 2012

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippine government and the country’s largest Muslim rebel group have reached a preliminary peace deal that is a major breakthrough toward ending a decades-long insurgency that killed tens of thousands and held back development in the south.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said the “framework agreement” calling for an autonomous region for minority Muslims in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation was an assurance the Moro Islamic Liberation Front insurgents will no longer aim to secede.

The agreement, announced Sunday and to be signed Oct. 15 in Manila, spells out principles on major issues, including the extent of power, revenues and territory of the Muslim region. If all goes well, a final peace deal could be reached by 2016, when Aquino’s six-year term ends, officials said.

“This framework agreement paves the way for final and enduring peace in Mindanao,” Aquino said, referring to the southern Philippine region and homeland of the country’s Muslims. “This means that the hands that once held rifles will be put to use tilling land, selling produce, manning work stations and opening doorways of opportunity.”

He cautioned that “the work does not end here” and that details of the accord still need to be worked out. Those talks are expected to be tough but doable, officials and rebels said. Rebel vice chairman Ghadzali Jaafar said the agreement provides a huge relief to people who have long suffered from war and are “now hoping the day would come when there will be no need to bear arms.”

The deal marks the most significant progress in 15 years of on-and-off negotiations with the 11,000-strong Moro group on ending an uprising that has left more than 120,000 people dead, displaced about 2 million others and held back development in the south. Western governments have long worried that rebel strongholds could become breeding grounds for al-Qaida-affiliated extremists.

One of the groups not party to the peace agreement is the Abu Sayyaf, which is notorious for ransom kidnappings and terrorist attacks over the last two decades. Its small bands of militants, mostly confined to jungles in two southern island provinces, continue to battle U.S.-trained Filipino troops.

“The parties agree that the status quo is unacceptable,” the 13-page agreement says. It calls for the creation of a new Muslim autonomous region called “Bangsamoro” to replace an existing one created in 1989 which Aquino characterized as a “failed experiment,” where poverty and corruption have forced many “to articulate their grievances through the barrel of a gun.”

The accord also calls for the establishment of a 15-member Transition Commission to work out the details of the preliminary agreement and draft a law creating the new Muslim autonomous region in about two years.

Rebel forces would be deactivated gradually “beyond use,” the agreement says, without specifying a timetable. The Philippine government would continue to exercise exclusive powers over defense and security, foreign and monetary policy in the new autonomous region, where Muslims would be assured of an “equitable share of taxation, revenues, and the fruits of national patrimony … and equal protection of laws and access to impartial justice,” according to Aquino.

Philippine officials said the preliminary accord would be posted on the government’s website for public scrutiny, and would be signed in Manila in the presence of Aquino, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and Moro rebel chief Al Haj Murad Ibrahim.

Malaysia in particular has played a key role as a facilitator. The neighboring, Muslim-majority nation has historically close ties with Filipino Muslims and fears a repeat of a refugee crisis from the 1970s and 80s when hundreds of thousands of Filipinos fleeing violence in the south fled to Malaysian state of Sabah.

“It’s been a long journey and this is an important milestone in our search for lasting peace,” presidential peace talks adviser Teresita Deles told The Associated Press. The United States, Britain, Malaysia and other countries welcomed the accord.

“This agreement is a testament to the commitment of all sides for a peaceful resolution to the conflict in the southern Philippines,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a statement. “The next steps will be to ensure that the framework agreement is fully implemented.”

The new Muslim region would be built upon an existing five-province autonomous territory, among the country’s poorest and most violent, with more than 4 million people. The Moro rebels earlier dropped a demand for a separate Muslim state and renounced terrorism.

Their negotiator, Mohagher Iqbal, earlier said his group would not lay down its weapons until a final peace accord is concluded. He said the insurgents could form a political party and run in democratic elections to get a chance at leading the autonomous region for which they have been fighting.

In Kuala Lumpur, Philippine government negotiator Marvic Leonen said both sides face the enormous task of working out the details. “We are not naive to say that there would be no obstacles. But the Philippine government will defend the agreement,” Leonen said.

The challenges are many. In 2008, the planned signing of a similar preliminary pact was scuttled when opponents went to the Supreme Court, which declared the agreement unconstitutional. Fighting erupted when three rebel commanders attacked Christian communities, and an ensuing military offensive killed more than 100 people and displaced about 750,000 villagers before a cease-fire ended the violence.

One of the hardline rebel commanders, Ameril Umbra Kato, broke off from the Moro rebels last year. Kato’s forces launched attacks on several army camps and outposts in August, prompting another army offensive that killed more than 50 fighters in the 200-strong rebel faction.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front itself broke away in the 1980s from the Moro National Liberation Front, which signed a 1996 autonomy deal with the government. That peace accord did not lead to disarming of the group and many of the rebels have simply laid low in the south, still demanding that the government fulfill its commitments, including jobs, security and economic development.

Some former guerrillas also formed the Abu Sayyaf. They are mostly based in the southern provinces of Sulu and Basilan, where about 400 gunmen remain.

Ng reported from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Associated Press writer Hrvoje Hranjski in Manila and Matthew Pennington in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.

Camp Darapanan, Philippines (AFP)
Sept 5, 2011

Muslim rebels waging a decades-long insurgency in the Philippines said Monday they would refuse to hold further direct talks with the government until it modified its peace plan.

Moro Islamic Liberation Front leader Murad Ebrahim said his negotiators would not meet their government counterparts next week as planned because the two sides’ positions were too far apart.

“With this situation we feel that there is no point of discussion between the two panels,” Murad told reporters at Camp Darapanan, the MILF’s rural headquarters on the outskirts of Cotabato city, in the southern Philippines.

Murad said the MILF would instead ask the Malaysian facilitator of the talks to meet separately with both sides in an effort to have the government alter its peace plan, which he described as an “exercise in futility”.

“It is necessity (to have) facilitation in order to help the two positions of the panels get nearer each other, and create an atmosphere conducive to discussions,” he said.

Murad said the government’s offer, made last month during the last round of talks in Kuala Lumpur, focused too heavily on socio-economic reforms, while ignoring the MILF’s quest for an autonomous substate for Muslims in the south.

“We need them to understand that the problem is a political problem and the solution must be a political solution,” he said.

He said the determination of the Philippines’ Muslim minority population to have an autonomous homeland in the south was the “root cause” of the problem and the government must agree to discuss this for peace talks to continue.

The government has not released full details of its roadmap for peace, but said the broad principles focus on achieving socio-economic reforms in the impoverished south of the country and other “doables” in an initial phase.

The government has also offered what it has described as a form of autonomy for Muslims in the south.

But Murad said Muslims would have no real autonomy under the government’s plan and that a “substate” allowing much more freedom from the central powers in Manila must be created.

About 150,000 people have died since the MILF and other armed Muslim groups began their struggle in the 1970s, according to military estimates.

A ceasefire between the MILF and government troops has been in place since 2003, however this has been regularly broken.

Source: Space War.