Philippine Muslim rebels say met US diplomats
Zamboanga: Leaders of the Philippines` largest Muslim separatist group said on Sunday they had met US diplomats and called for Washington`s involvement to help broker a peace deal.
The meeting between Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) chief Murad Ebrahim and US charge d`affaires Leslie Bassett took place on Friday at Darapanan, the rebel group`s main training camp on Mindanao island, an MILF statement said.
US embassy spokeswoman Rebecca Thompson said: "Ms Bassett met with various leaders and officials in Cotabato as part of a routine familiarisation visit."
Darapanan is located in the Cotabato region of Mindanao, but the spokeswoman would not specifically say if these meetings included MILF representatives.
Lieutenant-General Raymundo Ferrer, commander of Philippine military forces in Mindanao, said he instructed an Army division in the area to provide security to the American diplomats, who had requested a military escort ahead of a visit to the region.
But he added: "We were not informed about the meeting."
Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Ponce, spokesman for the Philippine Army`s Sixth Infantry Division, said: "We provided security, but we all know that they (soldiers) could not enter the MILF camp and join them (US diplomats)."
He added: "We learned afterwards from intelligence reports about the meeting (with the MILF). We learned that they discussed development projects and probably also the peace process."
There was no immediate response from Philippine government officials.
The MILF said the meeting was also attended by its vice chairman Ghazali Jaafar, chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal and five other senior cadres, while the US side included three Manila-based US diplomats besides Bassett.
During Friday`s meeting, according to the MILF statement, Jaafar told the US delegation: "We believe that the US can greatly help toward the peaceful resolution of the conflict."
Washington is a key aid donor to impoverished Muslim areas of Mindanao, and US special forces based on the island provide training and intelligence to Philippine troops fighting Islamist militants.
The MILF statement said its chief Murad stressed the movement`s commitment to reaching a peace deal with the government of President Gloria Arroyo "through a negotiated political settlement"
The Arroyo government and the 12,000-member MILF have been taking tentative steps towards resuming formal negotiations in recent months.
Peace talks were halted last year after the MILF attacked Christian communities across the southern Philippines, killing more than 300 people and displacing around 750,000.
The fighting came after the Supreme Court threw out a government proposal to give the rebels control over their so-called "ancestral domain," which covers more than 700 towns and villages.
The MILF and the Philippine government signed a new ceasefire in July.
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