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Philippine Government Peace Delegation Detained at Rebel Camp

A Philippine government delegation is not being allowed to leave the camp of a group of Muslim separatists in the southern Philippines. However, it is not clear whether the delegates are being held as hostages. As VOA's Kate Pound Dawson reports from our Asia News Center in Hong Kong, the rebels may be trying to push the government in Manila to go ahead with peace talks it had postponed.

A Philippine Marine general and at least 10 other people did not leave the camp of a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front as scheduled.

Brigadier-General Ben Dolorfino was to have left the camp near the town of Panamao on the island of Jolo Friday evening. He is leading a delegation of officials to discuss efforts to end the separatist group's long insurgency.

On Saturday, Philippine and international media reported that the MNLF rebels had insisted most of the delegates stay at the camp.

Parouk Hussin is a long-time leader of another separatist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and a former governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao in the southern Philippines.

He says the rebels may be angry over the government's postponement of formal peace negotiations. "And so some MNLF fighters, still, you know, in the jungles, maybe thought that this can be used, this so-called hostage-taking, might be used to pressure the government to negotiate," said Hussin

Peace talks had been scheduled for next week in Saudi Arabia, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference was to participate in the meeting.

Hussin says the government postponed the talks because it thought the MNLF was too factionalized to hold discussions. He says, however, the factions are a minor matter of the internal leadership and would not have undermined negotiations.

There is some confusion about the status of the delegation. While Hussin and some government officials describe the delegates as hostages, news reports quote General Dolorfino as saying they are being treated as guests and their security detail has not been disarmed.

Other reports quoted the head of the MNLF faction, Habier Malik, as saying he had merely invited the delegation to stay longer to discuss important issues.

The MNLF is one of the largest groups that have fought for decades to establish a Muslim homeland in the southern Philippines. Most of the country's population is Christian, but a sizable Muslim community lives in the south. The government has held peace talks with the separatists sporadically for more than a decade.