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Philippines Offers Peace to Moro Islamic Liberation Front - 2003-03-10

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has called on Muslim separatist rebels to stop violent attacks in the southern Philippines, or risk being tagged as "terrorists." This comes as suspected Muslim rebels briefly took hostage 50 bus passengers in the southern Philippines.

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo says her government is extending a hand of peace to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or MILF. But she warned Monday that government troops would crush the group of it continues violent attacks in the south of the country.

The military says the MILF is behind a series of bombings in the region over the past few weeks, including the deadly explosion at Davao airport last Tuesday that killed 21 people.

Ms. Arroyo's comments come as suspected MILF rebels raided a bus in the province of Cotabato Monday morning and took 50 passengers hostage. After a brief stand-off with government troops, the rebels abandoned the captives and fled to a nearby village. One soldier, who was one of the passengers, and a local militiaman were killed.

Shortly after the incident, Ms. Arroyo warned the MILF against further attacks, or risk being considered terrorists.

"Such actions, including the sabotage of transmission lines, only bolsters the argument made by more and more people that the MILF is not a political organization but a terrorist group," the president said.

The government has refrained from putting the group on international terror lists despite foreign intelligence reports linking the group to the Southeast Asian Muslim terrorist group, Jemaah Islamiyah.

The MILF had been holding peace talks with the government until last month, when intense fighting erupted between the two sides. The military said soldiers attacked rebel strongholds because the MILF was hiding criminal gangs. Since then, the rebels have refused to return to negotiations.

Manila has been battling several rebel groups for decades. Two such groups, the communist New People's Army and the Muslim kidnap group, Abu Sayyaf, have already been classified as international terrorists.

Last year, U.S. troops trained Philippine soldiers fighting these groups as part of the U.S.-led international war on terrorism. Another such exercise is planned this year, but controversy arose over whether U.S. soldiers could engage in combat in the southern Sulu Islands, where the military says the Abu Sayyaf are regrouping. U.S. and Philippine defense officials are still negotiating the details of that exercise.