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Government not drafting peace agreement with MILF in secret - Palace

MANILA, Philippines - President Arroyo wants to sign a peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) before she steps down on June 30 next year, Malacañang said yesterday.

However, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita rejected allegations of Cotabato Vice Gov. Emmanuel Piñol that the government is drafting a peace agreement with the MILF in secret.

“You can be very sure there are no secret items in whatever agreement they may be crafting,” he said.

Ermita said the peace agreement would be Mrs. Arroyo’s legacy to the Filipino people.

Forging peace with the MILF and other rebel groups was Mrs. Arroyo’s first policy directive when she assumed office in 2001, he added.

Ermita said the peace process cannot be relegated to the background as a significant portion of the population live in Mindanao.

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“Call it whatever it is, but the successful agreement coming out of the negotiations definitely will be a legacy of any president,” he said.

Ermita said US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged the government and the MILF when she visited last week to forge a peace agreement before they lose the opportunity to do so.

“Strike while the iron is hot,” he quoted Clinton as saying.

However, Ermita said the MILF must rein in rogue commanders who have been implicated in various kidnappings, including that of Catholic priest Michael Sinnott.

“(The MILF) can’t control all their people on the ground,” he said.

Ermita said this problem has not discouraged the administration from reaching out to the MILF to come up with a peace agreement.

“Let’s not be discouraged by the actions of the rogue elements,” he said.

“I think the more reason we should be emboldened to hasten the conduct of negotiations to end this problem.

“We are in government, we have to overcome all these problems.”

5 battalions hunt Sinnott kidnappers

At least five Army and police battalions continued yesterday the hunt for Sinnott’s kidnappers inside areas under MILF control.

They are focused on the municipalities of Sapad and Nunungan.

Intelligence reports said MILF rebels under Commander Latif have mobilized to repel the offensive.

Troops and policemen have been ordered to defend themselves if attacked by the MILF.

However, a military commander said the kidnappers could have already fled and taken refuge inside Camp Rajamuda, an MILF stronghold in the Lanao provinces.

Another military commander blamed several municipal and local leaders in the Lanao provinces for their failure to get the kidnappers.

“Aside from passing information to the MILF on military and police movements, these municipal and local officials are themselves the coddlers of the kidnappers,” the military commander said.

Turkey, Saudi invited

The government and the MILF are to invite Turkey and Saudi Arabia to join the International Contact Group to help push forward peace overtures in Mindanao.

Both countries belong to the Organization of Islamic Conference, a pan-Islamic block of more than 50 countries.

In an email statement, the MILF said its peace panel, along with its government counterpart led by Rafael Seguis, will jointly ask Turkey and Saudi Arabia to join the ICG.

The government and MILF panels agreed last September, during a low-level meeting in Malaysia, to establish the ICG as a pool of international organizations and humanitarian outfits to help in the Mindanao peace process.

Representatives of prospective members of the ICG, among them the British and Japanese governments, The Asia Foundation, the Center for Human Dialogue, held an initial meeting in Malaysia last Monday and discussed the operating framework for the contact group.

The meeting was jointly presided over by Seguis, MILF chief peace negotiator Muhaquer Iqbal, and the Malaysian facilitator of the peace talks, Datuk Othman Bin Abdul Razak.

As agreed by the government and MILF panels, the ICG shall, among other functions, act as a conduit for the negotiating parties; provide research inputs essential to the peace talks; and establish communication channels to hasten the peace process.

Talks are rife that the government and MILF panels are also to invite another foreign organization, the Henry Dunant Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, to join the ICG. The entity has helped in the Indonesian government’s peace initiative with the Free Aceh Movement, which paved the way for the peaceful resolution of the Muslim uprising in Aceh, Indonesia.

Iqbal said Monday’s meeting of the representatives of prospective member-organizations of the ICG and the two peace panels was cordial and focused on in-depth discussions on the intricacies of the contact group and the modalities for its operation.

The groups invited to join the ICG, according to Iqbal, also discussed a proposed draft for an internal terms of reference, or TOR, that would govern their respective involvement in the government-MILF peace process.         

“The proposed TOR was discussed point by point by the (Malaysian) facilitator, and the GRP and MILF panels, to see whether it complies with the parameters of the Framework Agreement on the ICG,” Iqbal said. – Paolo Romero, Jaime Laude, John Unson

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