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Philippine Government, Rebels Prepare for Peace Talks - 2003-12-11

A Malaysian team of observers is due to arrive Monday in the Philippines to begin monitoring a shaky ceasefire between the government and the country's largest Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Peace talks are scheduled to resume in January.

The Philippine government has asked leaders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front to investigate two of its field commanders. Manila alleges the two have helped members of Jemaah Islamiyah, the regional terrorist network with links to the al-Qaida group.

Philippine officials say they obtained the commanders' names from an Indonesian militant, Taufik Refke, who was arrested in October in the southern province of Mindanao. Jemaah Islamiyah has been blamed for a string of terrorist attacks in the Philippines and Indonesia in the past several years, including the bombing in Bali, Indonesia, that killed 202 people.

The author of Inside al-Qaida, Rohan Gunaratna, notes Jemaah Islamiyah has been disrupted somewhat by the arrest of about 200 members, including several senior leaders. But he says the Philippine camps are providing new leaders for the group.

"The training camps for Jemaah Islamiyah are still very active in southern Philippines. In fact, the next batch of Jemaah Islamiyah trainers are [is] to graduate on 15th of January," he said.

Philippines officials say 31 Jemaah Islamiyah members are active in the southern Philippines. The officials have joined security agencies in neighboring countries in warning of possible terrorist attacks across the region during the upcoming holiday season.

Professor Carl Thayer of Australia's Defense Forces Academy says Jemaah Islamiyah established links with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the mid-1990s after it decided to leave Afghanistan, where its senior leaders had been trained, and focused on establishing an Islamic state in Southeast Asia. Noting that a larger Jemaah Islamiyah training camp on Mindanao was overrun by the Philippine military in the year 2000, he says the current camp poses less of a threat.

"I would caution that this camp is not going to be able to produce the number of graduates the previous camp had produced, and it is under more intensive observation," said Professor Thayer.

The spokesman for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Eid Kabalu, denies that Moro Islamic Liberation Front officers are providing support for Jemaah Islamiyah.

"The Moro Islamic Liberation Front has never been involved in terrorist activities," he said.

Some security experts, like Professor Thayer, believe that the senior Moro Islamic Liberation Front leaders are sincere and any cooperation with Jemaah Islamiyah is coming from lower-level rebel officers.

"To assert that it [the MILF] has a firm command and control apparatus is probably not the correct way of understanding the relationship," explained Professor Thayer. "And in certain areas, the relationship seems highly fluid and almost impossible to put into neat categories."

But experts like Professor Gunaratna, disagree, saying this is a common excuse.

"Terrorist groups, for convenience, they always say that there are certain factions within the organization that is [are] doing this kind of activity," he said. "I certainly believe that if the MILF leadership wants to dismantle these camps, they will do that."

Most analysts say the Philippine government has been reluctant to pressure the Moro Islamic Liberation Front too much over the Jemaah Islamiyah camps because this might undermine efforts to revive long-stalled peace talks and threaten a shaky ceasefire declared last June.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, reportedly with 12,000 fighters, is the Philippines largest militant Muslim group. It signed two peace accords with the government in mid-2001, but these quickly collapsed, leading to renewed fighting. The two sides are hoping that with the arrival of a long-delayed monitoring group from Malaysia this coming week, they can resume the peace negotiations in January.

Professor Thayer believes the negotiations between the government and the rebels are much more important than the focus on the Moro Islamic Liberation Front links to international terrorism.

"To draw attention to the international or al-Qaida link, is, I think to displace [the focus]," he said. "These are local terrorist groups with local missions. But they are still potent and the fact that the connections exist for Indonesians to train in the southern Philippines is worrying."

Philippine President Gloria Arroyo is eager to see progress in the peace talks while the country prepares for national elections in June. But last week she warned the Moro Islamic Liberation Front that her government will pursue terrorists wherever they are and will not allow the peace process to stand in the way of its fight against terrorism.