MILF attacks Army

PHILIPPINE NEWS SERVICE — MUSLIM separatists traded mortar fire with troops in Mindanao just hours after the Supreme Court stopped a land deal between them and the government, the military said yesterday.

The mortar attack by an unknown number of Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels on soldiers stationed near Midsayap, North Cotabato, lasted for about half an hour late Monday, the military said.

The rebels had taken positions in the town’s outskirts, displacing more than 300 families, in violation of a 2003 ceasefire accord, the military said.

“The MILF fired about a dozen mortars toward Army positions,” said regional Army spokesman Lt. Col. Julieto Ando. “We returned mortar fire, but there were no reports of casualties.”

Ando said the rebels who attacked apparently ignored commands from the MILF leadership to leave the area as both sides negotiated a deal on territory.

In Armed Forces headquarters, spokesman Lt. Col. Ernesto Torres Jr. said he was not sure if the skirmishes Monday night were in reaction to the Supreme Court order.

“We are hoping for the best while preparing for the worst,” he said.

The Supreme Court on Monday stopped the government from signing a deal that would have given the MILF administrative and economic power over a large semi-autonomous area in Mindanao.

A total of 735 villages would be included in the proposed Muslim homeland, a final list approved by both sides showed.

Presidential adviser on the peace process Hermogenes Esperon Jr. released a copy of the list yesterday, but said their inclusion in the Bangsamoro homeland was not certain.

“We are not giving up these villages. The people in these villages will decide for themselves, through a plebiscite, if they want to be part of the [homeland],” he said.

Esperon acknowledged that violence was a concern because the rebels lacked tight control over their forces, but he added that major clashes were unlikely.

“We are calling for calm on all sides,” he told reporters in Kuala Lumpur, adding the trouble that had broken out so far was “isolated and controllable.”

The deal on ancestral domain was to have been signed yesterday in Malaysia, which has been brokering peace talks between the two sides.

Embarrassed Philippine negotiators who arrived in Kuala Lumpur after the order was released insisted the deal was not unconstitutional.

“This temporary delay has disappointed all of us and at the Supreme Court we will present our case why we should continue with the signing of the memorandum of agreement for ancestral domain, which is within the law,” Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo told a news conference in Malaysia.

“We are confident eventually we should be able to return and have this memorandum on ancestral domain signed,” he added.

MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal blamed “politicking” within the government for the debacle, arguing the aborted signing was only a formality.

“We have initialed the text of the memorandum of agreement on ancestral domain last July 27, 2008. The pact is a done deal. It is binding on the contracting parties,” he said in a statement.

“This is not even a setback to the MILF. We [have] the upper hand, especially in the battle for moral ascendancy,” he said.

Malaysia expressed disappointment over the delay and said it would rethink its plan to extend the presence of its ceasefire monitors in Mindanao.

The agreement was meant to pave the way for a final political settlement to end the MILFs 30-year fight for an independent Islamic state in Mindanao.

Within the homeland, local authorities will be able to use and exploit all natural resources, including potential oil and mineral deposits in the 220,000-hectare Liguasan Marsh, reportedly worth billions of dollars. The national government will get 25 percent of the proceeds from such ventures under a revenue-sharing arrangement.

The homelands waters will extend 15 kilometers from its coastline.

Amina Rasul of the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy said the Supreme Court erred in intervening in the signing of the ancestral domain agreement.

“The power to negotiate agreements is within the confidence of the Executive and any agreement between the government and the MILF must be submitted to a constitutional process and a plebiscite. This has cast a shadow on the Supreme Court,” Rasul said.

Senators yesterday said they would put the government s deal with the MILF under close scrutiny and vowed they would not “surrender” territory in exchange for a peace agreement.

“Giving our Muslim brothers the right to govern themselves and the right to utilize and exploit their wealth is perfectly legitimate. But I would not allow the emerging entity to be able to conduct diplomacy and foreign relations, to be able to issue their own currency and to allow them to carry arms and raise troops,” Senator Edgardo Angara said.

Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel said a debate on federalism would begin shortly.