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Philippines, Muslim Rebels Peace Deal in Jeopardy

Muslim rebels have rejected demands by the Philippine government to hand over two renegade commanders blamed for attacking several towns on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. Analysts warn fighting in the south may escalate after the government announced it would review a peace deal with the rebels of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. VOA's Nancy-Amelia Collins in Jakarta has more.

The Philippine government says it will review a peace agreement with Muslim rebels after rogue commanders from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front attacked several villages in the southern Philippines, killing dozens of people.

In a statement, the spokeswoman of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Lorelei Fajardo, said the current fighting in Mindanao left the government no choice but to review the provisions contained in the peace agreement.

The rebel group and the government have been negotiating on and off since 1997 on ways to give Muslims more self rule in the south, including the expansion of an already existing Muslim homeland that would give the group greater economic and political powers.

MILF blames government for breakdown of peace talks

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front's chief peace negotiator, Mohaqher Iqbal, told VOA the peace process was in "tatters."

"This breakdown of the peace process is not caused by the MILF. We have been very consistent, we have been very observing the cease-fire. But, in spite of all of this, the government does not honor its commitments," he said. "It's in tatters, it's in tatters. I don't know how to pick up the pieces."

Earlier this month, both sides were optimistic the decade's long insurgency that has claimed the lives of over 120,000 people was nearly ended following a crucial agreement on the territory of an expanded Muslim Autonomous region.

But the Supreme Court put the deal on hold, after Christian politicians in areas that would be affected challenged the deal, triggering the attacks by the rogue MILF commanders.

Analyst says situation is critical

Sidney Jones, the International Crisis Group's senior Asian advisor, says the situation in the southern Philippines is critical.

"I think things look really grim at the moment. I think there's a good chance that it will be a while, and I mean years, before we can get back to where we were before the court order stopped the agreement from being implemented," said Jones. "But I think, as well, there are real questions about whether either party negotiating the agreement did enough work with its own constituents."

Jones says there is a real possibility that fighting in the south may intensify.

"There's been some fairly bellicose statements coming out of the armed forces," Jones added. "I think probably both sides would prefer not to have to go back to conflict, but what was holding hostilities back was the prospect that peace was at least - if not around the corner - on the horizon. And now, it's a big question mark."

The Philippines is predominately Roman Catholic, but around five percent of the population is Muslim and most live in the south.