MILF Rebels Stall Philippine Peace Pact

Alvin Cuntu, left, with his 30 members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front who surrendered to the military, stand at attention as they are presented to media Thursday, Aug. 21, 2008 in a military camp in Iligan City in southern Philippines. AP Photo/Pat Roque

A Muslim rebel organization rejected demands by the Philippine government Thursday for the surrender of two renegade commanders blamed for attacks that killed dozens of people, setting the stage for a possible escalation in fighting.

Government Press Secretary Jesus Dureza said the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) should hand over Abdullah Macapaar, also known as Bravo, and Ameril Umbra Kato.

Bravo allegedly led a raid Monday on five towns that left 37 people shot or hacked to death. Kato led the occupation of predominantly Christian villages in the south last week.

In a radio interview, Dureza said the government cannot sign a peace agreement with "an organization that doesn't have control over its commanders" and called on front Chairman Murad Ebrahim to surrender the two commanders to the government.

"We should expect him to surrender and bring to government the two commanders who are clearly responsible for these acts," Dureza told DZMM radio. "Nothing short of that is acceptable to government."

But Mohagher Iqbal, chief peace negotiator for MILF, refused. "We are a revolutionary organization. We will never turn over our men to them. We have our own internal justice (system)," he told reporters by telephone.

Army Lt. Gen. Cardozo Luna, who is helping supervise the hunt for the two commanders, said up to 6,000 soldiers and police were involved in an offensive against an estimated 3,000-member rebel force operating in Lanao del Norte and North Cotabato provinces in the southern Philippines.

He told The Associated Press the army wanted to "solve the problem as soon as possible and ease the agony of the people."

Air and ground strikes against Kato's group that began Wednesday in parts of Maguindanao province have killed four rebels and wounded eight others, Col. Marlou Salazar, an army commander in the area, said in a telephone interview, citing intelligence reports.

Salazar and two other military officials said at least one soldier had died and 10 were wounded in the fighting in Maguindanao and in North Cotabato province's Midsayap township.

Earlier in the day, military officials paraded 31 rebels allegedly belonging to Bravo's unit who surrendered after refusing orders to kill civilians. Their leader, Alvin Cuntu, described Monday's attacks as a "brutal act against innocent civilians."

Lawrence Cruz, the mayor of Iligan, the capital of Lanao del Norte, called their surrender a "very brave act."

Rebel spokesman Eid Kabalu said they were checking if those who surrendered were "authentic" guerrillas.

Just weeks ago, a peace deal to end the decades-long insurgency in the troubled south had seemed within reach after government and rebel negotiators initialed an agreement on an expanded Muslim autonomous region.

But Christian politicians in areas that would be affected challenged the deal in the Supreme Court, triggering the attacks by the rebels.

Solicitor General Agnes Devanadera told the Supreme Court on Wednesday that "circumstances have changed" after the recent attacks and the government will no longer sign the agreement.

MILF negotiator Iqbal said resuming talks was "like opening a can of worms." He hinted that the impasse could set off an escalation in fighting.
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