Wed, Jul 09, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Arroyo softens her approach as hopes for peace increase

AFP , MANILA

President Gloria Arroyo said yesterday the Philippine government would agree to lift arrest warrants against Muslim separatist rebels to jump-start stalled peace talks.

Arroyo said her government was working to "build confidence in the peace process and we are preparing for the opening of talks" with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the country's main Muslim separatist group.

"We are open to the suspension of warrants by the court if this is necessary [to] move the peace talks forward," the president said.

MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu welcomed Arroyo's statement and said rebel negotiators were now prepared to resume talks in Malaysia.

"That's a positive development. We welcome that development," Kabalu said, stressing that both sides were now "on the stage of compliance for resumption of peace talks."

"If this will continue I think we will have a good start for the resumption of the talks," he said.

The MILF had earlier warned that the Muslim rebels would not return to the negotiating table unless the arrest warrants against its chief, Salamat Has-him, and other rebel negotiators are lifted.

The warrants were slapped against them in connection with deadly bombings in the southern Philippines this year.

"The MILF must not tarry on the procedural issues involved, especially so that it has several lawyers and legal advisers among its ranks," Arroyo said. "We must avoid being bogged down by these matters."

Malaysia, which has hosted preliminary peace talks, has said it would be difficult to go ahead with formal negotiations with the arrest warrants still in effect. Under the Philippines legal system only the courts can lift the warrants.

The 12,500-strong MILF has been waging a 25-year rebellion for the establishment of an independent Islamic state in the southern third of this mostly Roman Catholic country.

Peace talks were suspended early this year when Arroyo accused the MILF of harboring Muslim terrorists responsible for a spate of attacks in the south, including the bombings of an airport and a wharf in the southern city of Davao that left 38 dead.

An MILF commander earlier Monday accused Manila of insincerity and warned of more hostilities in the south if the negotiations fell through.

A statement posted on the MILF Web site quoted senior rebel leader Gordon Saifullah as saying the rebels were prepared to return to war immediately if efforts to resume talks collapsed.

The MILF earlier denounced links to the Southeast Asian Muslim terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah and said Salamat was willing to personally sit at the negotiating table, fulfilling two conditions set by Arroyo for the talks to be revived.

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