The Philippine president has ordered the military chief to assess whether the government should declare a truce to halt clashes between troops and Muslim rebels that have killed more than 70 people on a southern island, her spokesman said yesterday.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has previously ignored appeals by Jolo island officials for a ceasefire between troops and followers of jailed Muslim rebel leader Nur Misuari.
The clashes broke out on Feb. 7 and have displaced about 30,000 people on Jolo, about 950km south of Manila.
A major military offensive has led to the capture of a rebel base and driven Misuari's followers into hiding. Fighting has since subsided, but many displaced villagers refuse to return home, fearing the violence will return.
Presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye said Arroyo was considering a possible cease-fire and has ordered military chief of staff General Efren Abu to fly to Jolo this week to assess whether the government should forge a truce with the rebels.
Bunye defended the initial assaults against Misuari's armed followers.
"We need to assert the authority of the republic in the area, because without punitive actions, the attacks would possibly be repeated and repeated," Bunye said.
Hundreds of Misuari's men attacked an army detachment in Jolo's Panamao town and ambushed troops nearby, triggering fierce clashes that killed about 30 soldiers and 40 rebel gunmen.
The rebels said they had wanted to avenge the shooting deaths of three civilians -- allegedly including a child -- by army troops who'd barged into a community of Misuari's followers while pursuing suspected rebels from the al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf group.
Governor Benjamin Loong of Sulu province, which includes Jolo island, said he recently met Habir Malik, a leader of the gunmen, in an undisclosed location and urged him to halt any planned attacks to bolsters the chances of a ceasefire. Malik agreed not to launch any attacks, he said.
Malik has also denied any links with the Abu Sayyaf, saying kidnappings and bombings by the group were not in keeping with the teachings of Islam.
The Abu Sayyaf has been linked to the al-Qaeda and is on US list of terrorist organizations.
Lieutenant General Alberto Braganza, who heads the military's Southern Command, denied news reports that the military has forged an informal truce with Malik's group on Jolo, saying operations continue to capture Malik and his men.
Misuari formerly headed the Moro National Liberation Front, a large Muslim separatist group that accepted limited autonomy and signed a peace accord with the government in 1996.
But violence flared up years later and Misuari was imprisoned on charges of rebellion.
His followers, still armed, live in many towns on Jolo.