Battles threaten deal for larger Muslim zone in Philippines

Special to The Times

Efforts to revive a landmark peace deal could collapse if renewed fighting between government forces and Muslim rebels spreads in the southern Philippines, the guerrillas warned Tuesday.

Skirmishes between Philippine troops and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front continued in the southern region of Mindanao as government forces drove rebels from Christian villages that the guerrillas seized last week.

As many as 160,000 people have fled the fighting. Police say renegades led by rebel commander Ameril Umbra Kato looted and burned down homes, took land by force and killed livestock in at least 15 villages.

The rebels have killed three members of a family who were taken hostage Monday, police said.


Last month, negotiators for the rebels and President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s government reached a peace agreement, brokered by Malaysia, that would end decades of conflict by establishing an expanded Muslim homeland in the southern Philippines, a mainly Roman Catholic nation.

But Christian politicians and lawmakers launched a legal battle to block the deal, and on Aug. 4, the Supreme Court issued a restraining order preventing a formal signing.

If the legal hurdles are overcome, the agreement would expand the five-province Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao to incorporate hundreds of villages from mainly Christian provinces, creating a Muslim homeland called the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity.

After the court ruling, the government and the rebels said they were still committed to the deal, but skirmishes between guerrillas and the army quickly erupted in the south. The fighting escalated after rebels occupied Christian villages.


Eid Kabalu, a senior rebel leader, said the guerrillas had agreed to pull out but that government forces were attacking them, sparking battles in parts of North Cotabato province.

“MILF forces are abiding by orders to reposition, but militias and troops are firing on them,” he said, denying that the rebel forces involved were renegades.

Mohagher Iqbal, chief negotiator for the rebels, warned: “If the fighting spreads to other areas in Mindanao, then the talks will surely be at risk.”

Manila opened peace talks with the group, the country’s largest Muslim guerrilla force, in 2001, but a cease-fire reached at the time has frequently been violated, with each side accusing the other of breaking the truce.


The latest fighting has been fierce. Government troops, backed by tanks and warplanes, have battled rebels holed up in North Cotabato, said Lt. Col. Julieto Ando, 6th Infantry Division spokesman.

Ando said Tuesday that the rebels were slowly retreating as government troops advanced into areas occupied by them.

“We want to dislodge them from villages until all the areas are cleared so civilians can return peacefully,” he said.

Fighting also erupted in the southern province of Basilan on Monday after about 300 rebels occupied the center of the town of Tipo-Tipo in an attempt to stop regional elections.


More than two dozen people, including soldiers and rebels, were killed and wounded in the fighting in North Cotabato and Basilan.


Special correspondent Jacinto reported from Jolo and Times staff writer Watson from Jakarta, Indonesia.