PEACE TALKS WITH MILF SNAGGED AGAIN

MANILA, OCTOBER 30, 2003  (STAR) By Marvin Sy  - The peace talks between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the government could face another delay as the leaders of the secessionist group demanded a new set of preconditions before the resumption of the talks in Malaysia.

Diplomatic sources said the MILF has reiterated their demands that the charges against their top leaders be dropped and that the military immediately withdraw from the Buliok mountain complex, the captured MILF stronghold in Central Mindanao.

MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu stressed that the withdrawal of the troops from the Buliok Complex is part of the previous agreements between the MILF and the government.

The rebels are also insisting that the criminal charges filed in two separate courts in Davao against top MILF leaders be dropped.

The government had earlier agreed to withdraw the warrants of arrest the Davao courts issued for MILF leaders before they resume the peace talks to be held under the auspices of the Malaysian government.

"They will not agree to the talks unless the charges filed against their leaders in two other courts will be dropped and that the military will pull out from Buliok, which is a former MILF stronghold," according to a diplomat privy to the talks.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Blas Ople said last week that the Malaysian government has assured him that the peace talks will resume within the month but no definite date has been set.

"Malaysia is willing to facilitate the talks, but it can not start unless this conflict is resolved by both parties," the source said. "They fear that they could be arrested anytime so they want the charges against them to be dropped."

The MILF said they expected the withdrawal of the charges along with the issuance of safe conduct passes to MILF negotiators as a token of good faith on the part of the government.

However, the government has maintained that the peace talks should be undertaken "without any preconditions" and that negotiations must be pursued from a "posture of strength."

Ople said he expects the third party ceasefire monitoring team from Malaysia to arrive in Mindanao before the resumption of the peace talks to see if there are any violations committed by both sides.

But, aside from the criminal charges and the military withdrawal from the Buliok Complex, the looming retirement of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad as well as the Muslim observance of Ramadan is also expected to delay the peace talks.

The government is hoping to end over two decades of hostilities between them and the MILF with the reconsumption of the peace talks.


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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