GENERAL SANTOS CITY, OCTOBER 9, 2003 (BULLETIN) By: Bong Reblando  - Norway offers to join multi-country efforts led by Malaysia to hasten the peace talks between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

“The government of Norway wants to join the peace effort aimed at finding a lasting political solution to the Mindanao problem,” said a statement relayed by the Norwegian government to the separatist Muslim faction.

The statement immediately elicited reactions from Mohaqher Iqbal, MILF spokesman, who said he welcomes the offer of Norway, adding it will further enhance the peace process that is intended to find a lasting political solution to the decades-old Mindanao conflict.

“Norway’s entry to the peace process is a welcome development,” Iqbal said, adding “this is in line with our existing open-door policy to those groups, or nations, eager to help the Bangsamoro people attain peace with the government.”

At present, Norway has been helping the Philippine government to forge a peace agreement with the communist National Democratic Front (NDF) based in Utretch, the Netherlands and led by former priest Luis Jalandoni and New People’s Army founder Jose Maria Sison.

Earlier, US President George Bush announced he is giving $30 million as peace fund, while Kofi Annan, secretary general of the United Nations, also pledged to play a supporting role in the peace negotiations, aside from its ongoing rehabilitation projects for the other rebel faction.

Assistance to the tune of multi-million dollars has already poured in to implement the Sept. 2, 1996 peace agreement forged by the government and the Moro National Liberation Front led by detained chief Nur Misuari. The funds were intended to bankroll the various projects in war-torn areas in Southern Philippines.

The major fund donors are the UN-led multi-donor countries, the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), the US Agency for International Development (USAID), Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and Australian Assistance for International Development (Ausaid).

However, Iqbal said that participation by Norway, or any other countries or institutions, must not interfere with Malaysia’s lead role as chief mediator in the peace negotiation, which is expected to resume soon in Kuala Lumpur.

“We have no objection (to Norway’s or any other nation’s entry), as long as it will not complicate the peace-keeping efforts of Malaysia, but rather, hasten the steps to peace,” Iqbal said.

Iqbal has just flown to Kuala Lumpur to join the MILF peace committee that will meet its counterpart panel headed by Secretary Silvestre Afable, newly appointed chairman.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo wants a peace deal is signed during the Oct. 19 visit of President Bush to Manila.

The 12,500-strong MILF, which has been fighting the government in its bid to set up an independent Islamic state in Mindanao, remains a major threat to peace in Southern Philippines.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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