Sun, Jul 20, 2003 - Page 5 News List

`Peace is at hand,' Arroyo says as ceasefire begins

AP , MANILA

An indefinite ceasefire took effect yesterday between government forces and Muslim guerrillas in the southern Philippines, facilitating the resumption of talks to settle one of Southeast Asia's most enduring separatist conflicts.

"Peace is at hand," President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said in a radio address yesterday, ordering her military to halt assaults and calling for the immediate resumption of Malaysian-brokered talks to achieve a final peace accord.

She announced a package of concessions to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, including the suspension of arrest warrants and corresponding cash rewards for rebel leaders accused of terrorism -- a key rebel demand -- and granted safety passes to allow rebel negotiators to travel to Kuala Lumpur for the talks.

Rebel spokesman Eid Kabalu said his group was observing the truce.

Foreign Secretary Blas Ople said earlier that negotiations with the rebels could start as early as next week.

"I ask our people to give peace a chance," Arroyo said. "I am confident that we shall also effectively isolate and marginalize the dwindling terrorist cells in Mindanao and across our seas in the region."

Mindanao is an impoverished area where the 12,000-strong rebel group has been waging a separatist insurrection for three decades.

Prospects for the resumption of the talks brightened last month when MILF chairman Salamat Hashim formally denounced terrorism, a top government demand. Military and police officials have accused the rebels of having ties with the regional militant Islamic network Jemaah Islamiyah, said to be linked to al-Qaeda.

Months of sporadic talks in Malaysia were suspended in March following a series of bombings and raids the government blamed on "terrorists" within the MILF. More than 200 people, most of them civilians, have been killed in the attacks so far this year.

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