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PHILIPPINES: Muslim rebels, government seek civilian protection

MANILA, 19 October 2009 (IRIN) - The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) says it is working with the government to establish a mechanism to protect civilians in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in Mindanao from crossfire or clashes before formal peace talks resume.

The move comes more than a year after large-scale attacks caused massive death and destruction on the southern Philippine island.

Murad Ebrahim, head of the 12,000-strong MILF, says he has ordered his commanders to refrain from attacking military positions that could put the lives of tens of thousands of IDPs in danger.

And with the year-long fighting exacting a heavy toll on both government and rebel ranks, Murad says he now wants to end the cycle of violence before it affects the younger generation of Muslims.

"We have manifested very clearly that the MILF leadership is very sincere and very determined to push ahead with the peace process," Murad told journalists at his base in Sultan Kudarat Province.

"We are not building our military strength now, because we believe the problem cannot be solved by military means - it will always boil down to peaceful solutions."

While rebels are in a defensive position, "we are trying to mobilize support as much as possible to the peace process" to involve communities on the ground and the international community, Murad said.

"We really sympathize with the civilians. We have very strong orders for our freedom fighters that are very specific to the protection of civilians," Murad said.

"We have ordered our people, our fighters not to harm civilians. The problem is many of these civilians have refused to return to their places of origin because military forces have occupied their communities."

Protection mission

He said both sides had agreed to the creation of a "civilian protection mission" to assure civilians they would not be harmed while returning to rebuild their destroyed homes.

He said the mechanism remains at the planning stage, but would most likely involve international groups, including rights monitors, to hold both sides accountable for renewed violence.

"We are manifesting our sincerity. We will struggle to find every means in order that the peace process will proceed. We are looking to the Philippine government to reciprocate and have the political will to solve this problem," Murad said.

The civilian protection mechanism followed soon after both sides agreed to create an “international contact group” comprising representatives of the Organization of Islamic Conference and the European Union, who will facilitate the resumption of formal peace negotiations on the ground.

The creation of the group was a major breakthrough by negotiators trying to restart talks stalled since August 2008, when two MILF commanders broke a five-year ceasefire and attacked mostly Christian areas in Mindanao after a court stopped a proposed deal that would have given the rebel group control over large swathes of land they claim as their ancestral domain.

Since then, 380 people have died, entire farming communities have been destroyed and more than 750,000 people affected, in a humanitarian crisis that has also strained government's budget.

Of the total affected, 250,000 people remain in 500 evacuation camps where water, sanitation and access to basic health services remain a major challenge.

Nabil Tan, the government's chief peace adviser, who assumed office in early October, replacing Avelino Razon, meanwhile vowed to "double the government's peace confidence-building efforts" in the next few months to get the talks started.

"Back channelling talks are continuing. If we can put a closure to it before the next administration commences, so much the better," Tan told IRIN.

"Enough is enough of this bloody warfare. Now is the time to end the fighting and have a lasting peace in the country," he said.


Copyright © IRIN 2009
This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
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