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High alert for Philippine Muslim autonomy vote

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The police and army are stepping up patrols in voting ares  


By Rufi Vigilar in Manila

MANILA, Philippines (CNN) -- Up to 5 million voters will decide on expanded Muslim autonomy in the southern Philippines on Tuesday, after a delay of almost three years.

The polls will take place in 15 provinces and 13 cities in Mindanao -- the country's largest island which is predominantly Christian but where Muslim separatist groups have been fighting for an independent Islamic state for almost three decades.

The present Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) comprises only four provinces - Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi.

Police and military personnel have been increased in voting areas and are on "high alert" to stem any political violence, interior and local government secretary Jose Lina told CNN.

Violence by Muslim separatists in Mindanao has in the past delayed the ARMM plebiscite, which was first set in to take place in 1998.

Failure and threat

But the threat of violence is now coming from outgoing ARMM governor Nur Misuari, who has called on his followers to boycott the ARMM plebiscite.

Misuari is banking on a temporary restraining order (TRO) by the Supreme Court to postpone the elections.

"At this hour, (the TRO) is very unlikely," Secretary Lina said.

National Security Adviser Roilo Golez also acknowledged threats of violence by Misuari.

"We're hoping he was just misquoted," Golez said. "The elections will push through whatever the threat."

Misuari was recently replaced by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo as head of the Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development (SPCPD), a position he held concurrently as ARMM governor.

He is accused of being unable to account for some P18 billion in ARMM funds and failing to spur real development in the region.

The ARMM has been characterized by infrastructure projects left unfinished and rendered useless, leading the governors of the four existing ARMM provinces to threaten to withdraw from the region in 1999.

The formerly separatist Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which Misuari founded and which signed a 1996 peace deal with the government, also recently replaced him as its chairman.

Misuari has once threatened to again take up arms if he is replaced as ARMM governor.

Peace talks: past and present

The government and the MNLF signed a peace deal in 1996 which led to the creation of the ARMM, and which stipulated holding a plebiscite for the region's possible expansion.

Despite the peace deal, the armed insurgency was carried on in Mindanao by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) -- a breakaway faction of the MNLF, delaying the plebiscite for years.

The previous administration's armed offensive against the MILF has destroyed its 46 camps, significantly reducing its strength.

But the Arroyo government sees the MILF as a dormant force that may still regroup and threaten peace and order in Mindanao.

It has adopted a policy of reconciliation and is now holding peace talks with the separatist group.

The MILF and the present MNLF leadership have signed a unity agreement in Malaysia, which hosted recent talks, that could lead to an overall peace deal.







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