RP Muslim separatists call cease-fire

ZAMBOANGA, Philippines, AFP

Philippine Muslim separatist guerrillas have been ordered to silence their guns starting Tuesday ahead of peace negotiations with Manila, a rebel spokesman said Sunday.

“The suspension of military action will begin on April 3 and will probably (last) until we can conclude a peace accord with the Arroyo administration,” Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) spokesman Eid Kabalu told reporters in a teleconference from his base in the south.

President Gloria Arroyo last week announced the MILF has agreed to the formal resumption of talks with Manila following a secret meeting with a senior security adviser in Malaysia.

The date and venue of the talks have yet to be finalized, although officials earlier said it could be held in Kuala Lumpur and begin anytime in April.

“The truce will be effective until further notice,” he stressed, adding that the truce ordered was signed by the MILF military chief Mohammad Murad and was made known to its field commanders.

Kabalu’s statement came as sporadic clashes broke out in the south between government troops and the MILF, following a rebel attack on an army outpost in Maguindanao province on Saturday.

Troops fired rounds of mortars towards MILF positions in Maguindano’s Barira town to prevent the revels from storming vital government projects and installations in the area, military southern command spokesman Colonel Fredesvindo Covarrubias said.

Soldiers also engaged MILF guerrillas in a fierce gun battle in the nearby province of Basilan after an ambush on patrolling soldiers in the coastal town of Tuburan on Friday.

There were no immediate reports of casualties on both sides.

Two MILF hideouts in the area fell into government hands after the clash, the military said.

The renewed flare-up came in the middle of a truce earlier declared by both sides ahead of a possible resumption of talks later this month.

“The rebels continue attacking military positions in central Mindanao and in other areas in the south despite a truce agreement between the government and the MILF,” Covarrubias said.

Mindanao is the Philippines’ main southern island where the MILF has been waging a 23-year insurgency for the establishment of an independent Islamic state.

In Manila, President Arroyo said the peace talks “shall be in the context of (the Philippines’) territorial integrity” as she sought to allay public fears on reports that the government had pledged to return fallen MILF camps to the rebels.

The MILF territories fell into government hands last year following an all-out war launched by Arroyo’s deposed predecessor Joseph Estrada.

Opposition members have alleged that Arroyo had offered to return the areas to the MILF during the preliminary talks in Malaysia.