A deadly market bombing in the southern Philippines has thrown a spotlight on government peace talks with Muslim insurgents accused of aiding regional terrorist groups.
Initial suspicion for the blast, which killed at least 15 people and injured dozens more in the mostly Christian port city of General Santos, has fallen on the militant Islamic group Abu Sayyaf, whose operatives have been tracked to the southern island of Mindanao in recent weeks.
The attack comes as security forces tighten a manhunt for Abu Sayyaf leader Khadaffy Janjalani, who is wanted on kidnapping and murder charges. The US government has offered a $5 million bounty for his capture.
Philippine Army chief Lieut. Gen. Efren Abu told reporters last week that Mr. Janjalani was hiding in central Mindanao in territory controlled by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), an insurgency group with ties to illegal terrorist networks.
General Abu, far from accusing the MILF of harboring outlaws, said its leaders were now helping the government to track Janjalani and his followers.
For peace negotiators trying to coax the MILF into abandoning its arms for a political role, his comment points up the high-stakes game being played in a key front in Southeast Asia's battle against terrorism.
Analysts say striking a peace deal could be the best way of flushing out Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), two Al Qaeda-linked groups whose agendas go beyond the MILF's goal of local Muslim self-rule. Both have exploited the decades-old conflict in Mindanao for their own ends.
But the government must first be convinced that MILF leaders, who signed a cease-fire last July, aren't using terror attacks as leverage, or, perhaps more alarmingly, can't discipline radicals in their ranks.
"The reality is the Philippine government has to build on the peace process to drive the JI elements out," says Jesus Dureza, adviser to President Gloria Arroyo on Mindanao.
Officials and residents in former battle zones here say the 17-month cease-fire has already reaped a modest dividend in the form of aid and development, backed by the US and other foreign donors. Much more is promised for the region, among the poorest in the Philippines, if peace talks can bear fruit.
In the lush green hills above Parang, villagers that used to live under the MILF's authority are being wooed with government projects. A new road connects communities that were previously only reached on horseback.
Abdul Halim Manabilan fled fighting between government and MILF troops in 2000 that destroyed his home. He now lives with his family of four in a new wooden house with running water and electricity and has gone back to growing corn and rice.
"The civilians [here] are very ambitious to reach a lasting peace," he says.
Observers say persistent reports of ongoing training in current MILF camps suggest that Mindanao remains a staging area for JI after a crackdown in Indonesia in recent years.
The US ambassador to the Philippines, Frank Ricciardone, accuses MILF factions of protecting JI operatives who continue to use Mindanao to plan attacks, train recruits, and evade capture.
"They are harboring international outlaws and yet they seem not to want to be tagged as international outlaws themselves," he says. "They want it both ways and they can't have it both ways."
MILF officials insist that their leadership has firmly rejected terrorism and has legitimate political claims that it wants to settle peacefully. They deny giving sanctuary to foreign radicals and overseeing terror trainings.
"We not connected in any way with [Jemaah Islamiyah]. We are training our men. We have enough experience. We have been in the guerrilla business for 30 years," says Ghazali Jaafar, vice-chair of political affairs.
Analysts say the Philippine government is banking on Mr. Jaafar and other officials to sell any future peace accord to the MILF rank and file, whose numbers are estimated at up to 15,000.
But despite the conciliatory tones coming from the front's political wing, there are fears that it could splinter if MILF militants reject compromise with Manila.
Jaafar admits that radicals exist within the movement, but insists that chairman Murad Ebrahim, who took over last year, has the final say. "They still listen to the MILF and the decisions of the leadership," he says.
Negotiators trying to find common ground with the MILF say the fact that the cease-fire has held so far, with a Malaysian-led team of monitors from Islamic countries now in place, shows that dialogue is working, even if the pace of talks is glacial.
Indeed, rumbles of terror attacks could indicate that radicals are afraid of losing out to more moderate voices, says Silvestre Afable, the lead government negotiator.
"As we build more confidence, the irony is that the possibility of someone throwing bombs goes up as the terrorist groups grow more desperate," he says.