Thousands return to Mindanao on eve of cease-fire


Thousands of Filipinos displaced by a Muslim separatist rebellion are streaming back to their war-ravaged villages in the island of Mindanao on the eve of a cease-fire, President Gloria Arroyo said Monday.

They are moving back to the southern island in response to the month-long efforts of a government committee that is coordinating the rehabilitation of areas that bore the brunt of the previous administration’s all-out war against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), she said.

“As a result of the work of the Interact-Mindanao (the government committee for rehabilitation), evacuees have started to return to their villages, some of which are located in Abubakar,” Arroyo told a press conference.

Arroyo estimated last February, when she declared a unilateral truce, that half of the estimated 600,000 people displaced by the military operation had yet to return home.

Some had lived in villages around Camp Abubakar, the sprawling main training base of the MILF which was overrun last year.

The military campaign, which cost the government a billion pesos (23 million euros, US$20 million) to prosecute according to Arroyo aides, led to the collapse of peace talks and a terrorist backlash of deadly bombings of population centers in Manila and elsewhere.

After secret high-level talks brokered by Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur last month, the MILF agreed to hold peace talks and to declare a cease-fire.

The U.S. government announced Monday that the U.S. Agency for International Development and a private group, Action against Hunger, are to provide some US$422,625 to help about 30,000 of the Mindanao evacuees.

Arroyo said formal peace talks will begin within three months but stressed that the “development process has already been set into motion.”

The fallen MILF camps and territories will not be returned to the rebels, and will instead be converted into development areas where livelihood projects will be provided to civilians and the large Muslim minority.

The 10,000-hectare (24,700-acre) Camp Abubakar, which borders three provinces in Mindanao would be developed into a plantation for high-value crops with government money, even before a political settlement with the 12,500-member MILF.

“Thus, it is time that in these villages development and livelihood should foster communal peace,” Arroyo said. “The development component of the peace process must be accelerated.”

Stressing that Manila’s quest for a peaceful settlement to the MILF’s 23-year separatist insurgency in the south was “non-negotiable”, Arroyo stressed she has the full backing of the military.

“Our soldiers are not war-mongers and detractors of peace,” she said.

The MILF said its fighters have orders to silence their guns beginning Tuesday.