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Philippine Muslim Rebels Warn Cease-fire Could Falter if Malaysian Peacekeepers Leave

Muslim rebels in the southern Philippines and political analysts are warning that a cease-fire with the government could break down if Malaysia withdraws its peacekeepers from the region. Douglas Bakshian reports from Manila.

Malaysia makes up the majority of the 60-person force that oversees the truce in Mindanao. The troops have there since 2004, but last week Malaysian officials said their government will start pulling out its troops and that the mission will not be extended when it expires in September.

Rommel Banlaoi, of the Philippine Institute for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, says the move is a warning to Manila.

"Malaysia is making a signal to the Philippine government that something has to be accomplished after almost four years of Malaysian presence in the southern Philippines," said Banlaoi. "Since 2004 there has been no significant progress in the peace talks."

Banlaoi credits the Malaysian monitors with calming the conflict between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

Before the monitors were in place there were hundreds of clashes each year, but last year there were fewer than 12. Banlaoi says if the monitors go, it could mean a resumption of the armed conflict.

"It's peaceful because the high-ranking leadership of the MILF is giving peace a chance They are giving the Philippine government the benefit of the doubt," said Banlaoi. "But we have to take into account that there are extremist elements of the MILF who are not really optimistic about the peace process."

The MILF itself fears a resumption of violence. Chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal says even if the organization keeps its fighters in line, there are other militant groups opposed to the peace process that could take advantage of the situation and launch attacks.

"I do not want to paint a grim scenario," said Iqbal. "But the international monitoring team is responsible for the reduction of violence to almost a zero level. And based on that premise, if they pullout then the situation before they came, would return to what happened before."

The Philippine government says a Malaysian pullout will not trigger renewed fighting. It says it respects Malaysia's decision to withdraw the monitors.

For more than four decades, the MILF and other Muslim groups have been fighting for a separate homeland in the southern Philippines, a mostly Christian nation. Peace negotiations have been dragging on for more than 10 years, with Malaysia brokering the talks since 2001.

The MILF has accused the government of not being serious about reaching a settlement. The government has repeatedly said it wants peace, but it seeks a lasting agreement and it will take time to properly work out key issues.

The conflict has killed over 120,000 people and displaced an estimated two million.