Filipino Muslim rebels open to talks with Aquino

Muslim guerrillas in Philippines are ready to begin peace talks with Aquino.

Updated: May 16, 2010, 16:13 PM IST

Manila: Muslim guerrillas said on Sunday that they were ready to enter into peace talks with Philippine president-apparent Benigno Aquino III after years of little progress under his predecessor, hoping that his strong electoral mandate can bolster negotiations to end one of the country`s decades-long rebellions.

Moro Islamic Liberation Front negotiator Mohagher Iqbal, however, said his group would reserve its expectations on the prospects of a peace accord under a new Aquino administration, recalling that talks initially went well under his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, but then collapsed.

"Aquino`s victory was untainted by allegations of vote-rigging unlike Arroyo`s," Iqbal said. Arroyo stormy rule ends on June 30.

"He has more moral authority as a president and that will add to his clout," Iqbal said.

The long battle for minority Muslim self-rule in the southern Philippines by the Moro rebels, the largest guerrilla group with an estimated 11,000 fighters, will be one of Aquino`s major security headaches.

Two smaller insurgent groups, including the al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf, also have waged bloody insurrections in the south. New People`s Army rebels have been fighting a rural-based Marxist uprising that has killed more than 120,000 people since the late 1960s.

Aquino, who is headed to a landslide victory based on an almost-complete count of the May 10 elections, can rule with more stability, which can help him defend possible accords with Muslim rebels, Iqbal said.

In a recent interview, Aquino said he will restart talks with the Moro guerrillas and will consult all affected groups, including Christian politicians, to ensure acceptance of any peace pact.

"I really feel that Mindanao is the most poised for rapid transformation," Aquino said, referring to the resource-rich but poverty-wracked southern region, where the Muslim rebellion has raged on and off for four decades.

Although several agreements with the Moro rebels were signed under Arroyo, her administration failed to clinch a preliminary peace pact after it was opposed by Christian politicians in 2008. The Supreme Court declared the pact unconstitutional, sparking fierce fighting that killed hundreds and displaced about 750,000 people. A cease-fire has taken hold since then.

Bureau Report