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Philippines: Mindanao Struggles With Muslim Uprising - 2003-03-19

The southern Philippine island of Mindanao is in a crisis. For a month, government officials have grappled with consequences of collapsed peace talks with the Muslim separatists. Violent attacks have rocked the region, killing dozens of civilians and rattling the national economy.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo says the people of the southern island of Mindanao are out of patience with peace talks. She adds that many think that the time has come to use tough action against the rebels of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

Officials say nearly two years of peace negotiations have failed to make the Muslim-majority island more secure. Rebels continue attacking civilians despite a 2001 ceasefire agreement with the government.

In the most violent attack so far, authorities suspect MILF rebels in the bombing of Davao International Airport early this month and the government says this is evidence the rebels have rejected peace.

Even local leaders who once supported the peace process are turning against the rebels. Davao Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, once called "a Christian leader with a Muslim heart," was the first to denounce the Davao bombing. In the past, Mr. Duterte was one of the few Christian leaders in Mindanao who showed sympathy to the Muslim struggle for self-rule.

"When you explode a bomb, when you kill young men and women, children, how can I categorize you as a rebel? So I consider you terrorists," said Rodrigo Duterte. "And you think that you can take this country? Not in a million years."

But others believe the government ruined the cease-fire when troops launched a massive attack against the MILF last month - destroying the group's most important command post in the center of Mindanao. The military says criminal gangs hiding inside the camp were using the ceasefire agreement as a shield.

Senator Edgardo Angara criticized the military for what he called an unnecessary disruption of the peace. "The fall-out of that attack is what we are reaping now," he said. "So many civilian deaths and violence is being brought to the doors of urban centers."

For more than 30 years, the MILF has been fighting for a separate Islamic state in the southern islands of the predominantly Christian Philippines. Peace negotiations finally began in 2001, a year after government troops destroyed one of the rebels' largest camps.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo says her government is offering a hand of peace to the rebels, but her defense secretary warns that military operations will continue.

Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes acknowledges that part of the government's strategy is to use military pressure to force the MILF into talks. "Negotiations are too complicated," he said. "To force them to return to the negotiating table, to hit them that's one strategy. The other strategy is you have confidence building measure. Sometimes you hit them hard, sometimes you offer an olive branch."

Mr. Reyes adds that this hard line stance against the rebels is what the people of Mindanao want. "The people of Mindanao - they want to have peace and they want the armed forces and the police to run after these lawless elements - terrorists, criminals, extortionists and murderers," he said.