Philippines Seeks MILF Disarmament

The Philippine government will ask Muslim guerrillas to disarm and dismantle armed units when peace talks resume to prevent further attacks once a final agreement is signed, a presidential peace adviser said Tuesday.

Such a guarantee has become crucial because of recent attacks on civilian communities by three Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) commanders who were apparently frustrated over problems in the negotiations, Hermogenes Esperon said.

When the government signed a landmark 1996 peace accord with another group - the Moro National Liberation Front, which was the main Islamic rebel force in the southern Philippines at the time - there was no provision for disarmament, Esperon said. Many of the guerrillas retained their firearms and National Front rebels attacked troops after the accord was signed.

"That's one of the lessons learned," Esperon told The Associated Press. "A final peace agreement must have terms on disarmament, demobilization and rehabilitation."

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said the government will ask former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Sweden, which is helping the country's disarmament and rehabilitation efforts, to lend their expertise in negotiating with rebel groups to help end the decades-old conflict here.

Eid Kabalu, spokesman for the Islamic Front that is now the main southern rebel force, said the guerrillas would agree to eventually disarm when they see a signed peace pact being enforced so they would no longer be a need to bear arms to get justice, opportunities and a decent life for Muslim Filipinos.

"We won't agree to disarm anytime before that because that will be a surrender," Kabalu said. "Disarmament and demobilization should be the very last item on the agenda."

The 11,000-strong Islamic Front broke away from the National Front after it dropped a demand for a separate state in the southern Mindanao region - homeland of minority-Muslims in this predominantly Roman Catholic nation - and settled for limited autonomy.

After years of Malaysian-brokered negotiations, a peace deal to end the decades-long insurgency had seemed within reach in late July when the Islamic Front and the government initialed an agreement on expanding the autonomous region.

But Christian politicians in areas that would be affected challenged the deal in the Supreme Court, triggering a rebel rampage last week that left 37 people shot or hacked to death.

The government launched a massive air and ground attack Aug. 20 against three rebel commanders and their men, estimated to number about 3,000, in at least five provinces in Mindanao's mountainous and marshy heartland, killing up to 100 guerrillas, army officers say.

The rebels say only seven of their men have been killed, adding it was inflicting heavy military casualties.

At least 17 soldiers and five pro-government militiamen have been killed and some 64 soldiers have been wounded in the clashes, which have displaced more than 287,000 people.

Rebel chieftain Al Haj Murad has called on the government to immediately stop the offensive, which he said could cause the peace talks to collapse.