Self-exiled Filipino Muslim leader returns to meet with Aquino

A Libyan-backed radical leader of Filipino Muslims is returning home after a decade of self-exile in the Middle East. He is to meet President Corazon Aquino in a historic meeting on a remote Philippine island later this week. Nur Misuari, head of the Muslim separatist Moro National Liberation Front, based in the southern Philippines, was pressured to return for the talks by Libya, his primary sponsor. According to Islamic diplomats here, Libya's reduced oil revenues have forced it to lessen aid to the MNLF's 5,000-man army.

Also, neighboring Indonesia encouraged Mr. Misuari's return in a request to the Islamic Conference Organization (ICO), Misuari's main political backer.

The ICO was the intermediary that negotiated in 1975 and 1976 with then-President Ferdinand Marcos to end the violent Muslim uprising led by Misuari, who has advocated independence for Filipino Muslims in the south. Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim population, has tried to subdue moves for an Islamic state in its own country and hopes to prevent one next door.

President Aquino's aides say she will meet the secessionist leader Friday or Saturday on the Muslim island of Jolo, despite fears for her safety.

``Whatever will bring about peace, I am ready to do it,'' Mrs. Aquino said last week. The timing of the talks may be pegged to reaching some agreement in time for the next ICO meeting, scheduled to take place in a few months.

Misuari's supporters say he is ready to drop demands for independence in exchange for regional autonomy. But splinter MNLF factions and traditional Muslim leaders may differ with Misuari on the terms of autonomy, making it difficult for Aquino to negotiate, her aides say. Also, ethnic differences have often divided the Muslim community.

About 200,000 Muslim Filipino refugees still live in the nearby Malaysian state of Sabah, where they fled from fighting a decade ago. Malaysian officials hope Aquino's peace talks will allow the refugees to return home.

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