Sat, Jul 05, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Peace accord would deal blow to terror, Arroyo aide says

AFP , MANILA

A Philippines bid for a peace accord with Muslim separatists in 90 days would leave international terror groups with one less refuge in Southeast Asia, a senior aide to President Gloria Arroyo said yesterday.

While the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) denies any links with Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda, there is evidence of activity by JI and other foreign militant groups on Mindanao island in the past, Arroyo aide Renato de Villa said.

A witness at the Jakarta trial of JI's alleged leader Abu Bakar Bashir on Thursday detailed links between JI and Muslim militants in the southern Philippines and Thailand.

The Philippines is trying to iron out a number of issues hindering the launch of peace talks in neighboring Malaysia with the 12,500-member MILF, which has been waging a decades-old Muslim separatist rebellion in the south of the mainly Roman Catholic Philippines.

Military operations in Mindanao have revealed "some training in the past involving [not only] JI, but other people from some other countries," said de Villa, Arroyo's adviser on strategic concerns.

The JI has been blamed for a series of deadly bomb blasts in Indonesia, including the Bali blasts that claimed more than 200 lives last year.

Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand have also detained a number of JI suspects accused of plotting bomb attacks on foreign embassies and western targets in the region.

Southeast Asian governments say many of the detained suspects had received terrorist training in MILF bases on Mindanao, a charge vigorously denied by the MILF leadership.

"These are all indications that the south has really become a difficult area in so far as our security is concerned because of the involvement of other nationals in illegal as well as anti-government activities out there," De Villa said.

Southeast Asians are "so close to each other in the region that any major armed conflict that happens on one part of the region resonates on the neighbors and in some other parts of the region," de Villa said.

He noted that not only the JI, but also al-Qaeda militants had operated in the Philippines in 1995, when the authorities foiled their alleged plot to assassinate the visiting Pope John Paul II and hijack western carriers.

Small numbers of US Special Forces troops are providing anti-terror military training to Filipino soldiers who are going after the Abu Sayyaf, a smaller Muslim guerrilla group that also operates on Mindanao and nearby islands.

De Villa said he believed that once the peace talks get underway, "a peace agreement is achievable within 90 days," noting that the two sides had reached agreement in principle on many of the issues on the table in previous peace negotiations.

De Villa said the MILF would be offered limited self-rule in the south, similar to and within the framework of a 1996 agreement with another rebel faction, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

Ex-MNLF leaders now run an autonomous government spanning five Mindanao provinces.

Malaysia and the MILF said that arrest warrants and bounties issued by Manila against MILF leaders were blocking the start of the formal talks.

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