The chief of the largest Muslim rebel group in the Philippines has died. But neither the rebels nor the Philippine government expect his death to derail upcoming peace talks. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or MILF, Tuesday announced its chairman, Salamat Hashim, died more than three weeks ago of a heart ailment and complications from an ulcer.
MILF officials say his death was not announced sooner in order to give time for the group to choose a new leader. After deliberation, military chief Al Haj Murad Ibrahim was named as the new chairman of the MILF.
The MILF has been waging an insurgency to establish an Islamic state in the south of the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Philippines. Peace talks stalled earlier this year amid an upsurge in violence in Mindanao and the government's crackdown on terrorism. However President Gloria Arroyo announced last week that negotiations would resume this month with the help of Malaysia and the United States.
In separate interviews, both sides say they do not expect Mr. Salamat's passing to derail those efforts.
MILF Eid Kabalu told VOA the group remains committed to peaceful negotiations to solve the problem. "The passing away of chairman Salamat Hashim has no bearing at all because the commitment to pursue and resolve the Mindanao problem through peaceful means is a decision of the MILF as an organization, not an individual," he said.
Reached by telephone, General Ed Ermita, chief of the government panel negotiating with the MILF, welcomed the group's continued commitment to the peace process. He, too, said he does not expect the death of the group's chairman to affect prospects for peace talks, noting that the new MILF leader headed the panel negotiating with the government.
"Given the fact that Haj Murad from the first place, from the beginning, was the chairman of their panel, and he is now chairman of the MILF, then I don't expect any change of their policy to resume the negotiations," says Mr. Ermita.
General Ermita added that preliminary talks this week in Cotabato have been going smoothly. Once the Cotabato talks are complete, then formal negotiations are to resume in Malaysia.