Manila, July 1, 2003 By Aurea Calica (Star) The warrants of arrest for Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) leader Hashim Salamat and other Muslim rebel leaders may be set aside to pave the way for a resumption of peace negotiations between the rebels and the government, the Department of Justice said yesterday. Arrangements could be made to allow the rebel leaders to be "freed from fear of being arrested" and participate in the talks, Justice Secretary Simeon Datumanong said.

"I think the government is not short of processes or procedure to attend to that kind of (situation)," he told reporters in an interview, adding that "there are procedures to follow because the case is now under the jurisdiction of the court."

The MILF submitted yesterday to the DOJ the name of Salamat and four other negotiators who should be given safe passage, Foreign Affairs Secretary Blas Ople said yesterday.

The rebels must first ask permission from the court to allow Salamat to participate in the talks as he is one of several MILF leaders charged in a series of attacks in Davao City earlier this year.

"Under the law, the Davao court has the jurisdiction over this case so it’s the only one that can lift the warrant of arrest," Ople said.

"The initiative must come from the MILF through its counsel to initiate proceedings for the review and reconsideration of the case," he said, adding that the DOJ would support such a move.

Justice Undersecretary Jose Calida said prosecutors may file a motion asking the court to lift the arrest warrants. "This will have to be approved by the judge, it will depend on his discretion," he said.

Malaysia, which is brokering the talks, said the Philippines must drop the warrants of arrest, saying they were hampering the talks, and that the MILF leaders should be guaranteed safe passage.

Kuala Lumpur urged both sides to conclude a settlement in 90 days.

President Arroyo, however, rejected the suggestion, saying the "law is not a bargaining chip" on the negotiating table. Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye said the warrants could be "tackled at a later stage."

Warrants of arrest had been issued for Salamat and other senior rebel leaders over two deadly bomb attacks in Davao City that left 38 people dead and over a hundred others wounded in March and April.

The rebels denied involvement and have demanded the arrest warrants be dropped for the talks to continue. They also demanded the return of their stronghold in Maguindanao, which was captured by the military in an offensive in February.

Peace negotiations have been stalled since 2001, most recently because of bombings and raids the government blamed on "embedded terrorists" in the MILF.

Earlier, Salamat publicly renounced terrorism and denied that the MILF had ties with terrorist groups. He also agreed to a government demand to sit down as chief negotiator at the talks.

Mrs. Arroyo had demanded that the MILF publicly cut ties with terrorist groups and surrender those accused of bombings in Mindanao for the talks to resume.

Salamat’s declaration came after regional intelligence agencies linked the MILF with Jemaah Islamiyah, an al-Qaeda-linked terrorist organization blamed for the Bali bombing in Indonesia that killed over 200 people in October last year.

The 12,500-member MILF has been waging a campaign to set up an Islamic state in Mindanao, home of the Philippines’ Muslim minority.

 ‘Government acting too slow’

Meanwhile, two senators yesterday urged the government to lift the warrants.

"It is just logical to lift the arrest warrants against Salamat because this will give him a chance to meet face-to-face with government peace negotiators," Sen. Ramon Magsaysay Jr. said. "How can we have a face-to-face meeting if Salamat has a ransom on his head?"

Sen. Aquilino Pimentel yesterday criticized the government and said it was not acting fast enough to respond to Salamat’s peace overtures.

"Even after Salamat has acceded to the government’s demand to head the MILF peace panel, the government has not taken the initiative to lift the arrest warrant on him. It seems the government is acting incoherently by failing to undertake its own confidence-building measures," Pimentel said.

He added it may be possible to sign a peace agreement in less than 90 days "if both sides are sincere in their quest for lasting peace in Mindanao."

Government doubts on the MILF’s sincerity increased over the weekend when a cache of powerful explosives was discovered by troops after a battle with a rebel band in Maguindanao province.

Salamat writes to Bush

Meanwhile, an MILF peace negotiator said the government should put "in black and white" its policy on conducting the peace talks to reciprocate Salamat’s written declaration renouncing terrorism.

"Conflicting statements by people in the government, some of them not even involved in the peace talks, are complicating the efforts to revive the peace process," Michael Mastura, a former Maguindanao congressman, said yesterday without elaborating.

Salamat has written US President George W. Bush, assuring him about the MILF’s commitment to a peaceful end of the decades-old Muslim insurgency in Mindanao, Mastura said.

"I’m confirming that the Chairman Salamat has written President Bush on the prospects of the Mindanao peace process and that the US State Department has answered the letter of the MILF chairman," he said. Mastura declined to give details on the US reply.

The United States has agreed to take a "supporting role" in the talks.

The Arroyo administration had threatened to ask Washington to include the MILF in its list of terrorist groups if attacks on civilians continued.

The move could put a worldwide squeeze on the MILF’s sources of funds and weapons.

Avoid ‘reckless’ statements

Meanwhile, a congressman said Americans in the Philippines were unnecessarily put in danger after an American lawmaker in Massachusetts distributed a flier suggesting that suicide terrorist attacks might be deterred by burying attackers’ bodies with pig entrails.

Negros Occidental Rep. Jose Lozada, who chairs the House committee on foreign relations, urged caution in making statements that could anger Muslims.

Guy Glodis, a Democrat in the Massachusetts state legislature, sent a flier to 39 colleagues recounting the execution of Muslim extremists in the Philippines by US general John Pershing in 1913.

In the account, extremists were executed with bullets dipped in pig’s blood, "then buried with pig’s blood, entrails, etc.," a practice which, according to the leaflet, "instantly barred Muslims from paradise, dooming them to hell."

"Maybe," said the flier, "it is time for this segment of history to repeat itself, maybe in Iraq," implying that such acts might discourage potential Muslim suicide bombers.

The flier was published by the Boston Globe newspaper. Muslims are forbidden by their religion from eating pork or having any contact with pigs.

Glodis told the Boston Globe of the leaflet: "I didn’t write it. I just passed it along to my colleagues. I often share news items of interest with my colleagues."

US Muslims were angered. "This is... reckless behavior because the story (about Pershing) is obviously not true," Raeed Tayeh, of the American Muslim Association in North America, said. "And it’s also not true that if a Muslim comes into contact with a pig he would be denied heaven. This is ridiculous."

Glodis told the Boston Globe the Pershing story was a matter of historical fact. — With Pia Lee-Brago, Jose Rodel Clapano, Paolo Romero, Roel Pareño, AFP

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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