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US hits MILF ties with JI

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The United States accused Muslim separatists in the southern Philippines yesterday of ties with regional terror group Jemaah Islamiyah, and threatened to withhold millions of dollars in aid unless the rebels stop harboring "outlaws" and "terrorists."

"I would not be stating that concern unless we have excellent grounds for it," US Ambassador Francis Ricciardone told reporters.

The Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front are prepared to resume stalled peace talks on ending a decades-long rebellion later this month in Malaysia.

The United States through its Agency for International Development has committed at least $30 million in development programs for MILF areas once a final peace agreement is reached.

"The United States will not provide economic development assistance in areas controlled by the MILF if that organization maintains its ties to outlaws, terrorists, in violation of the written testimony of (MILF) chairman Salamat (Hashim) in his last days," Ricciardone said.

The MILF chief died of a heart attack in July. Ricciardone said Salamat had written to US President George W. Bush expressing his group’s commitment to peace.

"We are particularly concerned about the continuing presence in Mindanao of the Jemaah Islamiyah," he said. "The JI does not bring peace and development, but only death and destruction to all who deal with it," Ricciardone said.

The al-Qaeda linked terror group was allegedly involved in the last year’s bombings on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, which killed 202 mainly Western tourists, and the August bombing of the Marriott hotel in Jakarta.

Ricciardone refused to elaborate on the Jemaah Islamiyah’s presence, citing "sensitivity of the information." The Indonesian-based group has been suspected of running training camps in the southern Philippines.

"Should a genuine, practical, effective, durable peace come about, then very quickly we will have access to up to $30 million in programs... that we would make available in those areas," Ricciardone said, adding the funds "would be a real shot in the arm and help the peace take root."

But if the MILF, or a faction, proves to be a terrorist organization, then Washington will label it as such, he said.

"If they are a terrorist group then we regard them as such and the consequence of being as such. If hey are a political group like the MNLF (Moro National Liberation Front) that wants to govern, then they can be a party. But they have to decide what their group is, they have to decide what their course is," Ricciardone said.

The ambassador added that the US will continue to work with the Philippines in the fight against terror and will be introducing new programs for the country such as sending Kosovo and Georgia-trained American police personnel to train the Philippine National Police.

MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu denied the group had ties with Jemaah Islamiyah, and said it had already issued an official policy against terrorism.

"Our organization is very open. We have no ties with JI. They can investigate it," Kabalu told The Associated Press by telephone.

However, he said Al Haj Murad, who replaced Salamat as MILF chairman, met with a self-confessed Jemaah Islamiyah member, Indonesian fugitive Fathur Roman al-Ghozi, and his alleged Filipino associate Saifullah "Moklis" Yunos during the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

He said that after the war ended, Al-Ghozi and Yunos went to the MILF’s Camp Abubakar in the southern Philippines to join the rebels, but that Murad turned them down. Philippine troops shut down the camp in 2000.

Al-Ghozi escaped from a Manila jail July 14. Authorities said they believed he was hiding among supporters in the south.

President Arroyo said Wednesday that "peace in Mindanao is within grasp, driven by a confluence of positive political and economic factors."

Mrs. Arroyo said she won the backing of the United Nations, the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the United States for the peace process, and that the World Bank, the US Assistance for International Development and Muslim countries were setting up a multi-donor trust fund for the southern Philippines. AP, Marvin Sy

AL HAJ MURAD

AL-GHOZI AND YUNOS

AMBASSADOR FRANCIS RICCIARDONE

ASSOCIATED PRESS

GROUP

JEMAAH ISLAMIYAH

MILF

PEACE

RICCIARDONE

UNITED STATES

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