MANILA, September 26, 2003 (STAR) Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels warned yesterday they will not resume peace talks with the government unless troops are pulled out of their former stronghold in Buliok, Maguindanao.

Mohaqher Iqbal, MILF information committee chief, said the rebels would not return to the negotiating table unless the government "repositioned" troops outside the marshy former guerrilla zone overrun by soldiers last February.

"There would be no formal talks if government cannot honor its commitment," he said.

The two sides agreed to the withdrawal of troops from Buliok during a meeting in Malaysia in March, he added.

Iqbal said the rebels were also awaiting the deployment of 25 ceasefire monitors from Malaysia and four other Islamic states.

"We may just have another exploratory meeting next month to discuss ways on how to proceed to the next level," he said.

Iqbal said the Joint Communiqué signed by the government and the MILF in Cyberjaya, Malaysia on May 6, 2002 requires proper coordination between the two sides in the arrest of criminals.

"There should be proper coordination since President Arroyo announced that she would even lead the hunt for (fugitive terrorist Fathur Rohman) al-Ghozi," he said.

"And that means intensified military operations. Mahirap na masagasaan ang tropa namin."

On the other hand, MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu said he fears the entry of government troops in "MILF areas" might trigger hostilities between the troops and rebels.

"The military should exercise extreme caution so we can avoid a new round of skirmishes in relation to the ceasefire and the expected resumption next month of formal talks," he said.

The manhunt for Al-Ghozi in "MILF areas" might have violated the Joint Communiqué, which could disrupt any peace negotiation next month, he added.

Ramon Martinez, a member of the government’s ceasefire panel, said he believes everything is on track, and that peace talks will "definitely" be held next month.

"We are even pushing our schedules forward to meet the target dates for the resumption of talks," he said.

However, Martinez gave no specific time for the negotiations to restart.

Lt. Gen. Rodolfo Garcia, Armed Forces vice chief of staff, said an advance team of Malaysian observers was due in Mindanao next week.

"There is still a bit of paperwork needed but we expect the main body to be here in one to two weeks," he said.

Garcia, who heads the government’s ceasefire panel, said the Malaysian-led observers will be deployed in at least four Mindanao cities – Cotabato, General Santos, Iligan and Zamboanga.

The government is confident about the resumption of talks next month, he added.

Garcia declined to comment on the MILF demand for a pullout from Buliok.

About 100 Marines were deployed around the former rebel complex and a larger contingent was stationed in the surrounding area, he added.

Malaysia is brokering talks to end the three-decade separatist rebellion in Mindanao in which at least 120,000 people have been killed. — Bong Fabe, Reuters

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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