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Philippines Muslim Terrorists Face Deadline - 2003-05-13

Philippine President Gloria Arroyo has given Muslim separatist rebels until June first to abandon their campaign of violence or risk being branded terrorists. Manila is seeking support for its policies from Islamic countries.

President Arroyo's ultimatum said that "time is running out" for the Muslim rebels, and they must halt attacks on civilians and denounce any ties with Muslim terrorist organizations.

If not, she said, her government will consider treating the Moro Islamic Liberation Front as a terrorist organization - freezing its assets and possibly eliminating any chance of peacefully settling 30 years of separatist conflict.

A presidential spokesman said the government might ask the United States to designate the MILF as a terrorist group. This would pave the way for a campaign to cut off international support for the rebels.

The MILF wants to establish a separate Islamic state in the southern islands of the predominantly Christian nation. Rebel spokesman Eid Kabalu denies the group is engaged in terrorist activities. "The MILF is a legitimate revolutionary organization, with a legitimate cause. We are talking peace," he said.

Manila disagrees and is seeking support from Islamic countries for its tough new policy. For decades, various members of the Organization of Islamic Countries, the OIC, have actively mediated between the two sides in a search for a peaceful settlement of the conflict.

Ms. Arroyo's government recently argued to OIC members that the rebels' actions amount to nothing more than terrorism, and urged them to end any support for the MILF.

The government said it will make a final decision on a terrorist designation after an OIC meeting in Iran later this month. Until then, the government says the military will continue "punitive action" against the rebels.

Peace negotiations between the two sides were halted in February after a ceasefire agreement collapsed. Since then, a series of violent attacks against civilians and bombings linked to the MILF has killed dozens of people and displaced thousands more.

In the past week, the rebels raided a town and allegedly bombed a public market. Those two attacks killed at least 40 people, most of them civilians.