GMA scraps MILF panel, cancels US trip

PHILIPPINE NEWS SERVICE — PRESIDENT Arroyo has canceled her trip to the United States this month in light of renewed fighting in Mindanao and the possibility of further turmoil following the government’s decision to stop negotiating with the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

Press Secretary Jesus Dureza said preparations for the trip, tentatively scheduled for Sept. 21 to 26, had been scrubbed.

“I have received a call from protocol that the trip has already been canceled,” Dureza said.

In a major policy shirt, Mrs. Arroyo also scrapped the government peace panel yesterday, saying negotiations with the MILF would resume only after they had disarmed and moved out of their camps.

“The President has ordered that the government peace panel for talks with the MILF be dissolved to align all peace initiatives in accordance with this directive,” Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said.

In a separate statement, Mrs. Arroyo said her government would no longer sign a controversial draft agreement that would give the MILF autonomy over their own Muslim homeland.

“In the light of the recent violent incidents committed by lawless violent groups, the government will no longer sign the agreement,” she said.

“There will be no peace gained through violence, no peace agreement can and will be reached through intimidation or the barrel of a gun,” she said.

Top defense and military officials met Wednesday to discuss the impact of the President’s decision to scrap the government peace panel.

National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales said the Organization of Islamic Conference approved of the government’s new approach to put disarmament ahead of negotiations. Gonzales said he paid courtesy calls to various Middle East leaders of the conference to explain the Mindanao situation and to assure them that the peace process, although not necessarily with the MILF, was still on track.

The President ordered Gonzales and her peace adviser, Hermogenes Esperon Jr., to fly to Kuala Lumpur this week to explain to Malaysia, which has been brokering the peace talks, why the government was suspending negotiations with the MILF.

Senatorspraised the Presid-ent’s decision to dissolve the government panel, but said Esperon should be sacked too.

Majority Leader Francis Pangilinan said the government negotiators lost credibility after the administration decided to scrap its agreement on ancestral domain due to grave constitutional flaws.

The Supreme Court on Aug. 4 issued an injunction against the agreement on ancestral domain after local officials in Cotabato complained they had been kept in the dark about it.

Angered by the court’s action, two MILF field commanders, Umbra Kato and Abdurahman Macapaar, launched deadly raids across dozens of villages and towns in Lanao del Norte, Saranggani and Cotabato.

The raids left nearly 50 civilians and soldiers dead, while subsequent military offensives have so far killed more than 100 MILF rebels and led to the capture of more than a dozen rebel camps.

The Justice Department yesterday recommended the filing of multiple murder and arson charges against the two commanders.

The MILF, while insisting it did not sanction the attacks, has refused to denounce the commanders or to give them up.

Mohagher Iqbal,the MILF’s chief negotiator, said Mrs. Arroyo’s move signaled the government was preparing to intensify military attacks to include the entire rebel force and not just the two commanders.

“I don’t want to imagine that happening, but the MILF is prepared for any offensive,” Iqbal said. “We have to invoke our right to self defense.”

He said the MILF had not been officially informed of Mrs. Arroyo’s decision through Malaysia.

Mrs. Arroyo said the peace process could only move forward after the government widened its consultations to include local executives in areas to be covered by the new autonomous region.

On Wednesday, she said offensives would continue against the MILF, but ordered troops to respect Muslim civilians during Ramadan.

She also ordered relief agencies to step up their efforts to bring food and aid to the affected areas.

The National Disaster Coordinating Council said more than 470,000 people “are directly affected and needing assistance of any form.”

“They either lost their houses, were displaced or lost their livelihood,” it said in a report and appealed to private donors to send in food and other supplies.

Cotabato Auxiliary Bishop Jose Colin Bagaforo said religious leaders should be included in any new negotiating panel.

In a recent interview, Mrs. Arroyo said she was prepared to cancel her US trip if the security situation in Mindanao worsened.

The President was scheduled to attend the 63rd United Nations General Assembly and a global forum organized by former US President Bill Clinton in New York City.

She was also scheduled to attend a high-level meeting on the UN Millennium Development Goals, where she was supposed to report on the strides made by her administration to meet the development targets set by the international body.

During her last trip to the US in June, Mrs. Arroyo drew flak for embarking on a 10-day working visit while the country was being battered by typhoon Frank.

The President was forced to hold Cabinet meetings via teleconference before dawn from Washington to get updates on the number of people killed in the typhoon’s wake, as well as the sinking of the m/v Princess of the Stars, which had 862 passengers and crew on board.