U.S.-backed Philippines-separatist peace talks stall on amnesty issues
A new round of U.S.-backed peace talks between the government of the Philippines and a Muslim separatist group has been pushed back over issues of amnesty for the separatist leaders, officials said this week.
The talks, set to begin in Malaysia on Tuesday, were delayed because of concerns over arrest warrants issued by Manila for Moro Islamic Liberation Front leaders. MILF is the main group calling for an Islamic state in the southern Philippines.
Thousands of American troops have joined in training exercises with the Armed Forces of the Philippines, aimed at rooting out terrorist groups in the southern part of the country.
The MILF never has been targeted publicly as one of those groups, however, and the group has held sporadic peace talks with Manila. According to a U.S. military official at Pacific Command who is actively involved in the training missions, there is no direct evidence that Abu Sayyaf — the bandit group with alleged ties to al-Qaida — has a firm relationship with the MILF and other rebel groups.
The new round of talks was to have been “supported” by the Institute for Peace, a congressionally-funded nongovernmental organization that boasts a former U.S. ambassador to the Philippines — Richard Solomon — among its members.
The institute would play a secondary role in the talks, according to a U.S. Embassy spokesman in Manila.
“The Malaysians are clearly in the leadership role and the United States government is very comfortable with that,” said Frank Jenista, an embassy spokesman.
“The United States government is stepping back and has offered to provide assistance wherever appropriate,” Jenista said. “There are positive noises going on, but nothing firm yet.”
An Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesman declined to comment on what, if any, effect ongoing military campaigns would have on the peace talks.
In recent days, more than two dozen Filipino soldiers and civilians have been killed in attacks attributed to Marxist rebels in the southern and central Philippines.
The prospective peace talks between Manila and the 12,500-strong MILF got a boost last week when MILF leaders reportedly agreed to government demands such as renouncing terrorism and cutting ties to “foreign extremist groups.”
According to U.S. officials, a larger American role in the peace process likely would come once an agreement is reached. At that point, the U.S. government could offer international development funds and other assistance, a tactic useful in dealing with the MNLF, another separatist group in the south, Jenista said.
“That is what we could bring to the table in the later stages of the talks,” Jenista said.