Philippine President Joseph Estrada on Thursday accepted the surrender of 609 Muslim separatist rebels and said more would follow, as rebels leaders sent out feelers for renewed peace talks.
Estrada also defended his decision to order military offensives against Muslim armed groups in the southern region of Mindanao, affirming that the country would not give in to attempts by these groups to secede.
"There are backdoor negotiations, there are many who are expressing their desire to surrender," Estrada told reporters after accepting the surrender of hundreds of Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) members in this southern city.
"We ask our Muslim brothers present here today to convey to their leaders and their colleagues our earnest desire for them to go back to the negotiating table and rejoin our society," he said in a speech.
The 15,000-strong MILF, the country's main Muslim separatist group, has recently stepped up attacks on government and civilians.
Estrada played down earlier public statements by a MILF spokesman saying they would not go back to peace talks.
"Maybe that is just politics," he said. "Most of their members just want peace. What their spokesman says is not necessarily the opinion of the others."
He cited the surrendered MILF rebels, including renegade town mayor Mulapandi Cosain Sarip. Earlier this year, Sarip's men had battled government forces during an offensive against MILF camps in Mindanao.
The government overran dozens of MILF camps including their main headquarters, prompting the MILF leadership to call off peace talks and declare a "jihad," or holy war, against government forces.
An army statement said the 609 Muslim rebels also surrendered 400 firearms for which they were paid a total of 2.6 million pesos (56,500 dollars) under a gun-return program. They will also receive 6.825 million pesos in government loans and aid.
They will be returned to their communities where the government will implement a rehabilitation program.
The president's chief aide, Executive Secretary Ronaldo Zamora said they believe the MILF is ready to return to the negotiating table.
In a speech at a state college later, Estrada said his intention was to "bring back peace and order" in the south so that the government could accelerate economic growth.
"This is the reason why I assumed a forceful stand against the secessionist and bandit groups," he said.
Estrada cited the offensive against the MILF as well as an assault launched last month against a smaller Muslim extremist group holding hostages in the southern island of Jolo.
"The government had to neutralize the attempt by the MILF to amputate the southern parts of the country away from the organic whole," he said.
He stressed that Mindanao, which the country's Muslim minority consider their ancestral home, was "an integral and organic part of the Philippines. It is so today and it will be so forever."
The MILF has been fighting since 1978 to set up a separate Islamic state in Mindanao.
Estrada appealed for peace between the majority Christians, the Muslims and tribal groups in Mindanao, saying "we are not enemies. Our enemy is poverty."
He vowed to implement development projects in impoverished areas of Mindana -- CAGAYAN DE ORO, Philippines (AFP)
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