Philippines to Sign Ceasefire with Moro Rebels in Tripoli
Philippine government forces and mainstream Muslim separatists were to sign a ceasefire Friday, freeing up troops and resources to deal with Abu Sayyaf rebels holding US and Filipino hostages, officials said.
The ceasefire with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) was to be signed in Tripoli, Libya around 9:00 pm Manila time (1300 GMT), President Gloria Arroyo's spokesman said Friday.
A Libyan official in Tripoli however said the accord would be signed at 1900 GMT and that a "total ceasefire" would go into effect immediately.
The truce with the 12,500-member MILF "will last until a complete political settlement with the MILF is reached," Arroyo spokesman Rigoberto Tiglao added.
"In addition, an observer team composed of representatives from Malaysia, Libya and Indonesia will oversee the implementation of the ceasefire," he told a news conference here.
Peace talks began in Tripoli on Wednesday.
Philippine Vice President Teofisto Guingona, the concurrent foreign secretary, heads the government panel. The MILF team is led by Mohamad Murad, its military chief and number two leader.
Observers said a truce would free up substantial military resources in the main southern island of Mindanao, where three of the Philippine army's eight combat divisions are deployed to contain the MILF.
Officials said the truce would enable the government to concentrate its efforts on crushing the Abu Sayyaf, a 1,100-member Muslim guerrilla force operating in outlying southern islands.
A 460-member Abu Sayyaf unit is holding 25 hostages including a US Christian missionary couple on the island of Basilan and has eluded a four-week manhunt involving 5,000 troops.
The military said they believed the rebels have executed a third American, Guillermo Sobero. The rebels claimed last week they had beheaded him, but his body has not been found.
Tiglao said the Philippine negotiators visited Libyan leader Muammar Kadhafi at his tent outside Tripoli on Monday and secured his commitment that his government would not support the Abu Sayyaf.
The MILF is a 1978 splinter of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) which signed a peace treaty with Manila in 1996.
That accord gave Muslims a measure of self-rule in four southern provinces.
Moro rebels have for the past 30 years been waging a mostly low-level guerrilla war to set up a separate state in the Muslim homeland of Mindanao. The upper two-thirds of the archipelago is mainly Roman Catholic.
Tiglao said the truce accord would allow MILF forces to occupy a number of small camps in central Mindanao, and there would be "no military offensives on our part and on their part.”
MILF forces were driven from their major training bases last year, including their main base of Camp Abubakar, in a bloody military campaign by Arroyo's predecessor Joseph Estrada. A bloodless popular revolt deposed him last January.
Military spokesman Brigadier General Edilberto Adan said government troops would remain in the camps it had seized.
Tiglao said the ceasefire would allow for the return of several hundred thousand mainly Muslim non-combatants who were displaced by last year's flare-up.
He said the truce accord also called for the "joint development of conflict-affected areas. Our government will initiate this development program and the MILF will participate in this development." -- MANILA (AFP)
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