Manila, Feb. 18, 2003 -- The government yesterday stressed it will not heed to the call of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) for the military to stop its offensives against the Moslem rebels in Cotabato.

MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu earlier said operations against their camp must be stopped by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in exchange for the resumption of peace talks between their group and the government.

But presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye, in response to this, said there was no way to stop the offensives since they are almost completed or on “clearing operations” stage. “As far as we know, the operations are almost completed,” he said.

Malacañang even if it shared the sentiment of Kabalu that it would benefit the two camps if peace talks would be resumed stressed there must be no condition imposed specially if it would mean sacrificing the objective of the military to neutralize criminal elements like the Pentagon gang of Tahir Alonto, which is said to be being protected by the MILF.

“We always say we're always open to talking peace anytime we're ready,” Bunye said. Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Eduardo Ermita, in a press briefing in the Palace, disclosed they got official word from the MILF leadership yesterday afternoon that they were determined to pursue peace talks with the government.

Ermita said this was contained in a text message he received from an MILF official from the central committee whom he refused to identify.

He noted the high ranking MILF leader has agreed to the staging of formal or informal talks in Kuala Lumpur anytime.

According to Ermita, they were just waiting for President Arroyo to approve the final peace draft which they will formally transmit to their counterparts in Kuala Lumpur through the third party facilitation of Malaysia.

He also said Presidential Adviser on Special Concerns Norberto Gonzales confirmed to him the readiness of the Malaysian government to help in bringing the two panels in its country for the peace negotiations.

Ermita noted the ongoing fightings between the government and the MILF will not affect the planned peace talks.

He, however, said no date has been set yet on the resumption of any informal or formal talks with the MILF as this will still be discussed by the two panels.

Meanwhile, the Department of National Defense (DND) yesterday belied the accusations hurled against them by the MILF camp that the seized documents at the mansion of MILF chairman Hashim Salamat were all “planted.”

Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes said the military has pieces of evidence to support the seized documents revealing the bombing activities of the group.

The military also claimed it was able to recover some explosive devices and a training manual for child combatants, manual assassination, ambuscades and bombing techniques. Reyes pointed out the recovered mansion of Salamat is not an Islamic center as earlier claimed by the MILF.

Maj. Gen. Generoso Senga, 6th Infantry Battalion chief, said they were evaluating the seized documents.

As this developed, a group of military doctors and nurses arrived in Mindanao to help the evacuees in Pikit, North Cotabato.

Senga said the DND immediately acted on reports that many evacuees, specially children, were suffering from pneumonia and bronchitis. (Sherwin C. Olaes and Gina Peralta-Elorde, Tribune)

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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