Philippines Calls on MILF to Return to Peace Table

MANILA ~ The Philippines has called on Muslim separatist rebels to return to the negotiating table to end six months of large-scale hostilities.

Avelino Razon, the country’s chief peace negotiator, said the government will work towards putting “confidence-building measures” on the ground, including reactivating a joint task force that goes after criminals and terrorists.

“There’s no alternative to peace, that is why I’m calling (on) the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) leadership to go back to the negotiating table to resolve our differences peacefully,” Razon said in statement on Tuesday.

He said the government was also committed to “review and propose enhancements to the nature and structure of the facilitation process.”

Razon did not elaborate, but the MILF had said previous government negotiators were not prepared to address key rebel demands, including the proposed expansion of a Muslim autonomous area that was to have fallen under its control.

That proposed land deal was blocked by the courts late last year, leading to subsequent attacks by two MILF commanders across several towns and provinces on Mindanao island.

President Gloria Arroyo subsequently cut off peace talks, and demanded that the MILF surrender two of its commanders. That demand was rejected by the MILF.

The fighting that followed led to the displacement of over half a million people and the deaths of some 300 rebels, soldiers and civilians.

On Monday, the government said 124 people, mostly children, had also died in squalid evacuation camps.

The Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) said on Monday both sides should focus on reaching an interim ceasefire since a “broader settlement of the conflict seems out of reach” until Arroyo’s six-year term ends in 2010.

“As it stands, the two sides are too far apart, the potential spoilers too numerous and the political will in Manila too weak to hope for a negotiated peace anytime soon,” said Sidney Jones, the ICG’s senior adviser in Asia.

The ICG said however that it was possible for both sides to move towards restricting movements of the commanders involved in the attacks, while at the same time agreeing to a ceasefire.

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