JOLO, Philippines — President Corazon Aquino ventured into a guerrilla stronghold Friday to meet with the leader of a Muslim secessionist movement that has caused 50,000 deaths in the southern Philippines and told him, "I am not your enemy."
"What I want is peace," Aquino told rebel leader Nur Misuari in their hourlong private meeting in a Roman Catholic convent here, in the heart of a region controlled by Misuari's Libyan-backed Moro National Liberation Front. "We cannot progress if there is no peace."
She and Misuari signed a one-page statement agreeing to "a temporary cessation of hostilities" and creation of a committee to negotiate a long-term peace.
Rebels, Troops on Hand
The unprecedented meeting took place as thousands of Muslim rebels armed with grenade launchers, assault rifles and machine guns took up positions alongside government soldiers on the sidewalks, street corners and back alleys of this remote, embattled town.
Guerrillas searched presidential aides as they entered the room where Aquino had met with Misuari and joined them for another round of talks. Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and the armed forces chief of staff, Fidel V. Ramos, leaders of the coup that ousted President Ferdinand E. Marcos and brought Aquino to power in February, took part in the second discussion.
After the conference ended, the president's brother-in-law, Agapito Aquino, who served as her personal emissary in negotiations leading up to the meeting, described it as "a concrete beginning toward peace."
The meeting area was declared off-limits to reporters and photographers, but a Times reporter was permitted to listen at a window of the room where two leaders met.
Rather than debate any of the issues behind Misuari's "holy war" to establish a separate Islamic state in the southern Philippines, Aquino insisted that they simply agree on a temporary cease-fire. Some observers saw this an attempt by the president to achieve a quick domestic victory before her visit to the United States starting Sept. 16.
Truce Called Unnecessary
Misuari objected to a cease-fire as unnecessary, pointing out that his men, who waged a bloody war in the 1970s, have been observing an informal cease-fire for months--and that there have been few serious encounters in years.
Clearly, however, both Aquino and Misuari felt that the meeting was important not so much because of what they discussed as because it had taken place at all. It had not been easily arranged.
Misuari, who was permitted by the government to return this week for the meeting after 14 years in exile in Libya and Saudi Arabia, told Aquino he was violating 400 years of history and tradition of the Islamic Moro people by "meeting with the leader of our enemy."
"I am the only one in history violating this," he said, adding that he was doing so because his people are "tired of fighting" for Misuari's dream of a separate state.
Tight Security Measures
For Aquino, who overruled her Cabinet to attend the meeting, the Philippine military imposed costly security measures. The military deployed two full battalions of marines, two warships, four jet aircraft, half a dozen armored personnel carriers and nearly 100 security agents to protect Aquino during her four-hour trip to Jolo. The town, situated on the remote island of Sulu off the southwestern tip of Mindanao, is 600 miles southwest of Manila.
Even the site of the talks was debated until the last minute. First, they were scheduled to take place on the presidential yacht offshore, but Misuari rejected this as too risky. He suggested the main mosque in Jolo, but Aquino said no to this location. Finally, they settled on the convent of the Carmelite nuns, a favorite order of the devout president.
Aquino, Misuari and the military all appeared to have gained significantly by the encounter.
By the time the meeting was over it was viewed by top military advisers and members of the Cabinet as a major public relations victory. The president showed the nation, one official said, that she wants peace and "is willing to go to any length to achieve it"
Also, Aquino was seen as taking an active and concrete step toward stopping one of the nation's two rebellions less than two weeks before her scheduled meetings in Washington. The Reagan Administration had hinted earlier in the week that Aquino might be taking too soft an approach to the separate Communist insurgency.
Ramos Applauds Meeting
Ramos, Aquino's military chief of staff, applauded the meeting. "This has never been done by a president of the Philippines before, and I think we should take it in that spirit," he said. "This is a very important crossroad, a watershed in the matter of peace and order in this part of the Philippines."
Senior military commanders based in Mindanao said a formal cease-fire with the Muslims will make it easier for the military to combat the Communist rebels, who control large areas of Mindanao.