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Philippines' deal with insurgents collapses

The government cancels the pact after an alleged massacre.

August 22, 2008|Al Jacinto | Special to The Times

ZAMBOANGA CITY, PHILIPPINES — A tentative peace deal that came close to resolving decades of conflict between the Philippine military and Muslim insurgents collapsed Thursday after days of fierce fighting and an alleged massacre.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's government said it had canceled a landmark agreement reached recently with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the country's largest Muslim rebel group.

"The cancellation of the memorandum of agreement is a painful step in our collective effort to come to an agreement with the MILF," said a statement from Lorelei Fajardo, an Arroyo spokeswoman.

The rebels quickly insisted that the agreement was a "done deal."

The pact was designed to provide an expanded autonomous homeland for about 4 million Muslims in the southern Philippines.

The Philippine Supreme Court on Aug. 4 issued a temporary restraining order against the formal signing of the accord after politicians and lawmakers filed a petition to block the deal.

More fighting quickly followed as rebels seized several Christian villages in an area slated to become part of the expanded homeland.

The rebels withdrew, only to launch a new assault, which authorities said led to the massacre Monday of dozens of civilians, as well as looting and burning.

Arroyo's government, which has been negotiating with the Muslim militant group since 2001 to end almost four decades of fighting, "will seek a new agreement within the boundaries of law set within the constitution," Fajardo said. "Furthermore, the president will not allow adventurism by MILF forces to pressure the government to sign any agreement, even if it is for peace."

Mohagher Iqbal, the militants' chief peace negotiator, rejected the president's announcement that she was scrapping the agreement. Iqbal said the guerrillas would not renegotiate the accord.

"It is already a done deal," he said. "We have already initialed the memorandum of agreement on the ancestral domain. We will not revisit or renegotiate the agreement."

Sporadic fighting continued Thursday. At least four soldiers were injured in the town of Midsayap, in North Cotabato province. Clashes were also reported in several towns in Maguindanao province.

Seven rebels were killed in the fighting, according to the Philippine military, which said it was hunting two rebel commanders, Ameril Umbra Kato and Abdurahman Macapaar.

The government blames the pair for recent attacks in North Cotabato, Lanao del Norte, Sarangani and Sultan Kudarat provinces that left at least three dozen civilians dead.

Manila demanded that the militant group surrender Kato and Macapaar and has offered bounties for their capture.

But rebel commander Murad Ebrahim flatly rejected the demand, saying he has ordered an investigation of any possible involvement by Kato and Macapaar in the attacks.

The military said 31 followers of Macapaar, who is known as Commander Bravo, surrendered late Wednesday and accused their leader of massacring civilians.

"They surrendered because they could no longer take the inhuman instructions and atrocities committed by Commander Bravo," said Army Brig. Gen. Hilario Atendido, commander of a military task force.

Jesus Dureza, an advisor to Arroyo, said the government would not return to the peace talks unless the insurgents surrendered the two wanted rebel commanders.

"We cannot make peace at the expense of the people who have been massacred," Dureza said in a radio interview. "Those responsible should answer to the law."

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