Muslim separatists yesterday declared a 10-day unilateral cease-fire from next week to give peace talks a chance to resume in the troubled southern Philippines 12 days into a campaign of punitive strikes ordered by President Gloria Arroyo.
The military promptly dismissed the offer however and vowed to press ahead with offensives against the 12,500-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which it accuses of aiding terrorists responsible for a wave of deadly attacks this year.
MILF military chief Murad Ebrahim signed the ceasefire declaration, rebel spokesman Eid Kabalu said. It would start on June 2 to give MILF field commanders enough time to receive and comply with the order, he added.
Kabalu said the decision was in response to an "earnest call" from the dominant Roman Catholic Church as well as other peace advocates for an end to fighting in the Mindanao region.
"We hope the government will reciprocate this offer," Kabalu said by phone from his base in the south. "We are open to resuming the peace talks."
Arroyo, before departing for a state visit to the US on May 17, ordered the military to launch artillery and air strikes against MILF targets in the south to flush out those she called "the terrorists among them."
The campaign has so far left at least 77 MILF rebels and 11 soldiers dead, while nearly 100 other rebels surrendered. Twenty-two soldiers and about 14 MILF gunmen were also wounded, according to an official count.
Arroyo also secured military backing from US President George W. Bush who called on the MILF to abandon violence and pledged some US$356 million in security-related assistance to the Philippines to combat terrorism.
Arroyo had given the MILF a June 1 deadline to end attacks on civilians and cut links with terrorist cells, or be officially treated as terrorists themselves -- a move that could end peace talks.
Military southern command spokesman Major General Roy Kyamko said declaring a government truce would "not be agreeable to the courts of justice" since key MILF leaders including Murad have standing warrants of arrest.
"They are using the MILF as an organization as a cover for their terrorist acts. We should be careful, let us not get into that trap. We shall do our job and punitive actions against terrorists will continue without letup," Kyamko told reporters.
A spokesman for Arroyo's office said the government would closely observe whether the MILF would strictly and "sincerely" follow its own ceasefire before making an official reply.
The directive to halt offensives however has apparently not yet reached MILF rebels in the field. Troops clashed at dawn yesterday with about 40 MILF rebels allegedly plotting bomb attacks near the eastern Mindanao city of Tagum.
There were no immediate reports of casualties.