Rebels insist RP troops pull back

By Jasbant Singh, PORT DICKSON, Malaysia, AP

Muslim rebels waging a separatist rebellion in the southern Philippines said Friday that it was too soon to tell whether cease-fire talks with the Philippine government will succeed in a permanent settlement.

Murad Ibrahim, chief negotiator for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front at talks that resumed Friday in Malaysia, said that the government needed to withdraw troops from rebel areas in the southern Philippines and allow thousands of displaced people to return.

Government negotiators were sticking to a more narrow demand that a cease-fire needed to become concrete, Ibrahim told The Associated Press after morning talks.

“It’s still too early to predict” whether the talks will succeed, Ibrahim said. “The security aspect is a precondition to implementing the other aspects of the negotiations.”

The government team agreed that security issues needed to be resolved first, but refused to comment on specifics.

The negotiators resumed talks at a resort hotel in Port Dickson, on Malaysia’s southwest coast, after a two-day break when the government team returned to Manila for consultations.

They are trying to agree on details of a cease-fire framework reached last month in Libya that would end decades of fighting and develop the war-ravaged economy in the southern Philippines.

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is due to visit Malaysia Aug. 7-10. Speculation is widespread that she may witness a historic deal that would end the main rebellion, leaving the small Abu Sayyaf kidnapping gang as her last Muslim foes. She refuses to negotiate with them.

Chief Philippine negotiator Jesus Dureza told a news conference that Arroyo’s state visit would have no bearing on the peace talks.

“There is nothing dramatic in what is going to be achieved here, because we are merely implementing what has already been agreed in Tripoli,” Dureza said.

Because of the number of details, the process could be slow, Dureza said.

Ibrahim said that the main differences were over defining how to bring security to the region.

“Security does not only encompass a cease-fire, but also normalization of the area,” Ibrahim said. “It encompasses the return of evacuees and the resumption of normal life of the people. There must also be a repositioning of Philippine troops from MILF camps.”

The rebels, who have fought to carve out an independent Muslim nation from the largely Roman Catholic Philippines, agreed to resume negotiations with Arroyo’s administration after talks with her predecessor, Joseph Estrada, collapsed last year when he ordered a massive assault.

Muslim separatists have been battling the central government for about 30 years. The fighting has killed more than 120,000 people and turned one of the country’s most resource-rich regions into the poorest.