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Philippine Panel on Muslim Rebellion Dismissed


The Philippine government has dismissed the panel of negotiators brokering peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. VOA Correspondent Nancy-Amelia Collins in Jakarta has more.

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo Wednesday said she had scrapped the government panel negotiating peace with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

Mrs. Arroyo stressed the government is not abandoning the peace talks, but would, instead, implement a new approach that would entail wider and more direct dialogue with local communities in the volatile south, home to most Muslims in the Catholic majority country.

Mohaquer Iqbal, the MILF's chief peace negotiator, tells VOA the scrapping of the government peace panel raised serious concerns.

"As far as the situation on the ground and the peace process are concerned, especially in relation to the latest pronouncement of the government, they've disbanded their panel and they're suspending talks with the MILF. These are signs that are raising some serious concerns as far as we are concerned," said Iqbal.

The latest snarl in the peace process comes after the two sides hammered out an agreement, early last month, that would have given the MILF an expanded Muslim autonomous region, a key issue bogging down the talks.

Christian politicians in the affected areas challenged the agreement in the Supreme Court, which stopped the accord, triggering renewed fighting in the southern island, Mindanao.

Scores have died and hundreds of thousands of people left homeless after several rogue MILF commanders attacked several mainly Christian towns in Mindanao.

Mrs. Arroyo says the fighting must stop before talks can resume with the 11-thousand strong MILF.

But MILF chief negotiator Iqbal says the MILF will defend itself, if attacked.

"We are still observing the ceasefire, but we reserve the right to defend ourselves. We still value the peace process as the most practical and most civilized way of solving the conflict in Mindanao, but when it comes to something very serious on the part of the government - they attacking us, then we have to defer to defend ourselves which is the natural right of every man," added Iqbal.

Government forces have been ordered to ease air and ground assaults on suspected rebel lairs, especially near Muslim communities and refugee centers, in observance this week of the start of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting.

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