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The main Muslim rebel group in the southern Philippines on Friday ruled out returning to peace talks with the government unless a trusted mediator is found.
The Associated Press reports that the development came a day after Manila announced a unilateral cease-fire, saying it will suspend nearly yearlong military operations against "rogue" Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) commanders.
Thursday's announced cease-fire could allow some of the estimated 300,000 still-displaced civilians to return to their homes. But the rebels' statement Friday showed that the two sides remain far apart on the underlying political issues that sparked fighting last summer. The Associated Press said the MILF leadership was wary of returning to the negotiating table with the government.
Chief rebel negotiator Mohagher Iqbal welcomed the government's truce and said he would order guerrilla commanders to hold fire starting Saturday. But he ruled out a resumption of peace talks without "an international guarantee" that any outcome of negotiations would be implemented....
"We are very clear to the government: Unless a certain mechanism is in place, we won't talk to the government anymore because we don't trust the government any more," he told DWIZ radio.
The Manila Times reports that the government halted its military operations against MILF Thursday in hopes of restarting peace talks.
President [Gloria] Arroyo's decision came after the military last week said that its arsenal is being depleted because of offensives against rebel forces in southern Mindanao.
Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said that the halt in the government offensives would pave the way for the resumption of the stalled peace talks with the MILF.
GMA News, a Philippine television news station, reports that the cease-fire will not stop the military from going after three "rogue" MILF commanders accused of leading a killing spree last year.
Armed Forces [of the Philippines, AFP] information chief Lt. Col. Romeo Brawner Jr. said the AFP will assist the Philippine National Police (PNP) in going after rogue MILF commanders blamed for several crimes in the past that include murder, arson, and robbery.
GMA News also reports that MIlF still considers the three "rogue" commanders legitimate, and that the group's chief negotiator called the government's pursuit of them a "dangerous proposition."
Those radical elements – possibly assisted by Indonesian terrorists with the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jemaah Islamiyah – have also been blamed for a spate of improvised explosive device attacks on buses and churches.
One prominent Christian leader in Mindanao warned that MILF commanders would take advantage of the cease-fire to attack civilian areas, according to ABS-CBN News.
The MILF has been struggling for decades for Muslim self-rule in the south. The Supreme Court issued a last-minute injunction on a peace deal last summer that would have expanded a Muslim autonomous area (see a map of the current area here.)
In protest, radical MILF commanders went on a killing and home-burning spree in Christian farm areas. Since then, peace talks have been on ice, and the military and MILF have been engaged in a deadly cat-and-mouse game across the marshlands of Mindanao – a large island that includes the Philippines's poorest provinces.
Certainly no settlement is likely during the remaining tenure of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo [currently due to last through 2010]; the two sides are too far apart, the potential spoilers too numerous, and the political will too weak. The best that can be hoped for is progress around the edges.