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Philippine Conflict Subdues Christmas Joy

  • Luke Hunt

The Christmas spirit in the southern Philippines is being sorely tested by an escalation in the fighting between government troops and Muslim rebels. Many civilians are too frightened to shop or attend church services.

Dozens of people have been killed or injured in the latest spate of attacks by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front across the southern island of Mindanao.

Last week, bombings of two shopping malls in Iligan City left three dead and 50 wounded. On Sunday, bomb disposal experts dismantled a third explosive.

Kidnappings and skirmishes in the countryside are also on the rise, forcing thousands of people out of their villages and into refugee camps.

Collapse of peace deal blamed for increase in violence

The rebels are fighting for a homeland on the southern island for the country's Muslims. Earlier this year, the Philippine government and the MILF reached a peace agreement but the Supreme Court in August struck down the deal.

The collapse of the deal has been blamed for the increased violence over the past few months.

Al Jacinto's family publishes the Mindanao Examiner in Zamboanga.

He says the latest fighting is felt across Mindanao and weighs heavily on the island's Christian population in the lead-up to Christmas.

"A lot of people are really afraid, scared to go out and shop because of this threat of terrorism," he said. "In Zamboanga, in Basilan there's fighting, in Jolo Island there s fighting, in central Mindanao there's sporadic fighting between the MILF and the Philippine military."

President approves revival of peace talks

Philippine President Gloria Arroyo has given the go-ahead for a peace panel to revive talks with the rebels in another attempt to end the decades-old conflict.

However, Jacinto says the MILF will be in no mood to bargain until the government agrees to its terms for an autonomous homeland.

"When I spoke with MILF leader, Mohagher Iqbal, who's also chairman of this panel with the rebels, he said he would only resume peace talks with the Arroyo government if the president honors the … Muslim ancestral domain agreement that was not signed in August," Jacinto said.

Muslims are a minority in the Philippines, where most people are Christians. Most Muslims live in the south, an area the MILF claims as an ancestral homeland.

In response to the recent violence, the British, Australian and U.S. governments warn of a high threat of terrorism across the Philippines. They have advised their citizens against traveling to Mindanao.