Peace talks with MILF to resume after Ramadan

PHILIPPINE NEWS SERVICE — THE government’s peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front is likely to resume in October after Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, an official said yesterday.

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said the talks’ resumption would be high in the agenda at a pull-aside meeting between President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation group’s conference in Sydney this week.

“They will be discussing the status of the talks, its resumption, which will most likely happen after Ramadan; and the extension of the mandate of the International Monitoring Team,” Ermita said.

The mandate of the team, which monitors violations of the three-year-old ceasefire between the government and the MILF, has been extended for one more year with its coverage expanded to include Basilan and Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and Palawan.

Mrs. Arroyo confirmed her coming meeting with Badawi, but stressed that “the details will be left for our presidential adviser on the peace process to hammer out.”

The talks were initially scheduled to resume on Aug. 22, but the government postponed it unilaterally to draft an offer on the sticky issue of ancestral domain.

The talks collapsed last September after the two sides failed to agree on the number of villages to be included in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao that the MILF controls. The MILF has been demanding 1,200 villages, but chief negotiator Rodolfo Garcia said the government would give away only 300 to 400.

And as the talks’ resumption neared, the chairman of the MILF secretariat said he doubted the government’s sincerity about signing peace with the group before Mrs. Arroyo’s term ended in 2010, citing three “spoilers.”

Muhammad Ameen accused Ermita, Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno, who was recently named acting presidential political adviser, and National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales of leading the peace talks “to an unknown direction.’’

“There are many spoilers of the peace process especially in Mindanao, but all those are secondary, and the main or worst spoilers are those in the government itself,” Ameen said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr. yesterday sent off two engineering battalions to Basilan to help rehabilitate the province, the scene of skirmishes between the military and Muslim terrorists.

He said the contingent of Air Force and Navy men had been tasked to help the public works department complete a circumferential road and to secure the people working on it.

“You are there to help build the road and to fight to build the road if necessary, and that is your role,” Teodoro said in a speech at the Navy headquarters in Manila.