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Philippine rebel group signs ceasefire guidelines

By Rufi Vigilar

MANILA, Philippines (CNN) -- A Philippine government delegation signed a secondary peace agreement with a key Muslim separatist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) on Thursday.

Both parties signed a manual for the cessation of hostilities, in the third round of peace talks being hosted by Malaysia between the Philippine government and the MILF.

The new agreement supplements a cease-fire agreed to in August, and lays out how to conduct and implement the cease-fire.

Despite the August 7 ceasefire deal, skirmishes have continued between government troops MILF rebels in the southern Philippines.

The MILF has been fighting to set up an Islamic state in the southern Philippines for more than two decades.

The government is also fighting Abu Sayyaf militants in Basilan. The U.S. has named them as one of the groups linked to Osama bin Laden, and says they will also be targeted in the global fight against terrorism.

The agreement

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The manual states the tasks of local executives, MILF representatives and non-governmental organizations who will compose so-called local monitoring teams (LMTs) meant to guard against ceasefire violations.

Secretary Eduardo Ermita, the Presidential adviser on the peace process, told CNN that the new pact will be "strengthened by the presence of representatives from the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC)," who will form a separate monitoring team.

"The OIC monitoring team will create its own guidelines," MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu said in a television interview.

The main southern island of Mindanao comprises some of the country's poorest provinces where most of the Philippines' Muslim minority live.

The Philippine government has battled in the past three decades with various Muslim separatist groups which consider Mindanao their ancestral domain.

The return of ancestral lands to the 'Bangsamoro people' will also be discussed during the peace talks set until this Saturday, Kabalu said.

Sticky issues

Local Muslim groups have been protesting Arroyo's support for the anti-terrorism campaign
Local Muslim groups have been protesting Arroyo's support for the anti-terrorism campaign  

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has adopted a policy of reconciliation with the MILF, reversing the previous administration's thrust of increased armed engagement that saw MILF headquarters and 45 other rebel camps overrun.

But Arroyo has turned down the rebel group's demand for its camps to be returned, even as she vowed to spur development in former MILF-claimed territories.

Secretary Ermita said that an economic rehabilitation program would also be discussed in Kuala Lumpur, which includes the "peaceful return of thousands of evacuees" in areas in Mindanao where government offensives took place.

Kabalu cited other "ticklish issues" about the program, particularly fund allotments.

The MILF is now the largest Muslim separatist group in the Philippines, with an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 members.

The MILF broke away from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) which signed a 1996 peace deal with the government, giving up armed rebellion and opting for the expansion of what is known as the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

Anti-U.S. protests

Amid the government's peace efforts, local Muslims are protesting President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's support for U.S. air strikes on Afghanistan.

Muslim congressmen warned that demonstrations by local followers of Islam may escalate if the air strikes result in a greater civilian death toll.

Secretary Ermita was consulting with "300 Muslim leaders in four provinces" in Mindanao on Thursday, to prevent a repeat of an October 9 anti-U.S. rally led by local ulemas and civic organizations. The government estimated 10,000 protesters.

Basilan congressman and Deputy Speaker for Mindanao Abdulgani Salapuddin told CNN "the bombing of lateral targets [in Afghanistan] could galvanize protests" among local Muslims.

Sulu congressman Hussin Amin said that "if bombing is indiscriminate, protests may grow outside the ARMM [Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao]."

Unconfirmed reports said that thousands of Muslim volunteers have signed up to go to Afghanistan and defend the ruling Taliban.






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