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Amnesty International Warns Against Arming Civilians in Volatile Southern Philippines

Amnesty International warned local politicians in the troubled southern Philippine island of Mindanao against arming civilians for protection against Muslim rebel attacks, saying it could set a dangerous precedent and further escalate the violence there. VOA correspondent Nancy-Amelia Collins in Jakarta has more.

International human rights watchdog Amnesty International said Friday local politicians in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao are arming civilians and forming civilian militias for protection against attacks by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

Dozens of people have been killed and tens of thousands displaced following attacks in several parts of Mindanao blamed on rogue commanders of the MILF.

The fighting prompted the government to scrap a crucial territorial agreement reached earlier this month between the government and the MILF that would have expanded an autonomous Muslim region in Mindanao, paving the way for the ending of the decades old conflict.

The territorial agreement was set to be signed earlier this month but Christian politicians who would have been affected by the agreement challenged the accord in the Supreme Court, triggering the attacks.

Sidney Jones, the International Crisis Groups senior Asian advisor, says the situation in Mindanao has reached a crisis stage and the fighting may spread if neither side is willing to return to the negotiating table.

"And it [the fighting] can spread, that's the worrisome thing," said Jones. "If there's no prospect of getting back to the table and no prospect of the main opponents of the agreement being won over so that there's some point of coming back to the table, then I think we can see more rebel commanders do what the first two have done."

The MILF has refused the military's demand to hand over two renegade commanders responsible for the attacks and has said the peace accord, which the two sides have been negotiating on and off for over a decade, was in "tatters."

Jones says Philippine president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has not paid enough attention to the peace negotiations.

"I think she's been so distracted by the scandals swirling around her in Manila that she and her advisors haven't had enough time to focus on the importance of this particular agreement," said Jones. "They've left it to the negotiators and the negotiators worked out a hard fought agreement, but then there was no effort made to actually build up the political support."

Amnesty International also said the MILF has targeted villages and "been engaged in serious violations of international law" and should be held accountable.

The human rights group also warned the formation of civilian militias by the government "can set off a chain of reprisals and only increase the danger facing civilians."

The Philippines, a predominately Roman Catholic country, has been arming civilian militias for decades to reinforce the armed forces and protect local communities, a practice that has been widely condemned by rights groups.