MILF warns of clashes

PHILIPPINE NEWS SERVICE — A MUSLIM rebel chief has warned the United States, Canada, Japan and other donor countries that planned military assaults against his insurgents could spark clashes and jeopardize peace talks.

Moro Islamic Liberation Front chairman Al Haj Murad relayed the warning in letters to ambassadors of countries and donor institutions financing development projects in conflict-affected southern regions.

The letter was read by a rebel commander, but he refused to be identified because he was not authorized to release details of the letter.

“The present situation in Basilan no doubt will seriously affect the primacy of the peace process,” Murad said in the July 22 letter to more than 10 Western and Asian ambassadors and financial institutions.

Government troops would soon scour the jungles of southern Basilan for MILF insurgents responsible for killing 14 Philippine Marines as they searched for a kidnapped Italian priest last July 10, officials said.

Ten of the Marines were found beheaded, sparking condemnation from President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and the 120,000-strong military.

Armed Forces Chief Hermogenes Esperon said the “punitive action” was aimed at capturing the insurgents involved in the attack, and that troops would not launch a full-scale war against the MILF, a large Muslim rebel group engaged in Malaysian-brokered peace talks with the government.

Both the government and rebels acknowledge a flare-up of violence would imperil the talks.

The resolution of the conflict “is quite vital to the interest of the international donor community” funding development projects in conflict-affected areas because of the possibility that the guerrillas could “turn our back on the peace process,” Murad said.

“Any collision of armed forces and perhaps the loss of life or escalation in the economic costs of the armed conflict would, in effect, produce deep religious agitation and political crisis,” he said.

US Embassy spokesman Matthew Lussenhop said he could not comment on any private correspondence or confirm if his embassy had received the letter.

“We’re continuing to assess the security of our people and projects” in Basilan, he said. “Nothing has been canceled or postponed at this point,” he said.

While the MILF has acknowledged its Basilan forces engaged the Marines, whom it accused of encroaching into rebel strongholds, it denied beheading the 10 Marines and called for an investigation by Malaysian-led ceasefire monitors.

Mrs. Arroyo has sent 65 members of her elite Presidential Security Group to join the operations on Basilan, a predominantly Muslim island about 850 km. south of Manila.

Washington and the Philippines has touted Basilan as a success story in US-backed efforts to rid the impoverished province of Al Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf bandits.