Military on alert in Mindanao after peace setback

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Military on alert in Mindanao after peace setback Empty Military on alert in Mindanao after peace setback

Post by PM on Wed Aug 06, 2008 4:21 am


MANILA - Security forces went on full alert this week ahead of elections in the Muslim region of Mindanao that could be a focus for violence after a fresh setback in a stop-start peace process with Islamic guerrillas.

Civilian and military officials said on Wednesday they feared the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) might try to disrupt elections in an existing Muslim region in the south after a deal to create a new, larger homeland was halted by the Supreme Court this week.

"The political temperature in the south is fast rising," said Emmanuel Piņol, a vice governor in the province of North Cotabato.

He said farmers in most Catholic communities had been arming themselves to defend their property.

"The people are hurt. They are enraged by the way the government has been handling the problem in Mindanao."

Thousands of Catholics demonstrated across Mindanao this week against a government deal with the MILF that would have expanded the existing Muslim region and given its future government wide political and economic powers.

Piņol and other politicians asked the Supreme Court to nullify the deal.

In response, the top court temporarily halted a signing ceremony for the agreement and its judges will decide in the next few months whether the deal is unconstitutional and needs to be reworked.

MILF units, frustrated at the slow pace of progress in talks, have attacked government troops in the past but the organisation said it would not fire a shot this time.

"This time, the trouble will not come from us," said Eid Kabalu, an MILF spokesman.

"We continue to abide by the ceasefire and remain committed to the peace process. Those Christian officials in North Cotabato are just creating hysteria and calling on their people to arm. We will defend ourselves if they attack us."

Muslims in the south of the largely Catholic country have been seeking some form of independence for decades in a conflict that has killed more than 120,000 people.

About 1.6 million voters were expected to elect a governor, a vice governor and 24 members of a regional legislative assembly in the six-province Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) on Aug. 11.

The ARMM was created out of a peace deal with another Muslim rebel group in 1989. Many Muslims argue its powers are too limited.

Joel Goltiao, police chief in the Muslim region, said about 17,000 soldiers and police officers had been deployed to guard the elections, particularly in 200 villages, where there had been a long history of violence because of a rebel presence.

"There are no real and specific threats, but there had been a lot of speculation due to developments in the peace talks with Muslim rebel groups," he said.

Peace advocates appealed for calm.

"The current situation has started to create social disorder brought about by some hostile posturing both from supporters and opponents of the proposed Muslim homeland," said a statement from the Mindanao Peaceweavers network.

"The situation on the ground points to more violence especially in Central Mindanao."

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