Philippines President Gloria Arroyo yesterday gave Muslim separatists a June 1 ultimatum to end attacks on civilians and cut links with terror groups, or be treated as terrorists themselves.
The warning brought the government closer to ending its bid for a political settlement to the 25-year rebellion waged by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Mindanao, the southern third of the mainly Roman Catholic country.
"The government is nearing a decision point on whether to declare the MILF a terrorist organization, and to take the necessary operational and diplomatic measures to strengthen this prospective policy," Arroyo said in a written statement.
Her spokesman Ignacio Bunye said a terror tag would lead to "the possible restriction of funds from donor organizations to a terrorist organization," as well as "restrictions on the travel of individual members of the organization."
He said there was "a possibility of foreclosing the peace talks if the MILF is eventually declared as a terrorist organization," but noted that similar action did not affect peace talks involving Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers or the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Arroyo suspended peace talks last week following a wave of attacks blamed on the MILF that have claimed nearly 100 lives in Mindanao since March.
The government yesterday repeated a previous demand for the 12,500-member MILF to renounce the Abu Sayyaf kidnap-for-ransom group as well as foreign Islamic militant organizations including Jemaah Islamiyah and al-Qaeda.
It also demanded that the MILF hand over those responsible for the bombings of two southern airports and a port as well as a series of raids on Mindanao towns since March.
MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu dismissed Arroyo's threat.
"What will they freeze? We don't have a single centavo," he told reporters by telephone.
"The MILF is not receiving financial support," from abroad, he stressed.
The MILF has denied responsibility for the Mindanao blasts, and rejected allegations that it helped Jemaah Islamiyah, blamed for the Bali bombing last year, and al-Qaeda.
It also denies giving sanctuary to the local Abu Sayyaf kidnap for ransom group. The US regards all three as "foreign terrorist organizations".
Foreign Secretary Blas Ople on Monday briefed envoys of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), grouping more than 50 Muslim nations, of the Mindanao developments.
"It is our impression that whatever position we take would now be supported by the OIC," Bunye said.
A number of Muslim countries had previously given material backing to the rebels.
But OIC member Malaysia in recent years has fretted about the possible tidal wave of war refugees, and has been hosting informal peace talks.
Malaysian ambassador to Manila Taufik Mohammed Noor said a terrorist tag would affect his government's treatment of the MILF, under the trilateral accord on counter-terrorism signed by Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Manila last year.