/ 14 January 2009

Philippines ‘ready to resume talks with rebels’

The Philippines is ready to resume peace talks with the country’s largest Muslim rebel group, the government’s chief peace negotiator said on Wednesday, after he was instructed by the president to visit Malaysia next week.

Kuala Lumpur is the intermediary in the negotiations between Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) that were bogged down in August 2008 after a deal to expand an existing Muslim autonomous region on the southern Mindanao island was stopped by the Supreme Court.

Enraged rogue elements of the MILF then attacked Catholic-dominated communities, burning homes and farms and killing civilians, forcing the army to launch offensives.

More than 300 people were killed and more than 500 000 forced to flee their homes and farms. The government then decided to end peace talks with the MILF.

”We will go to Malaysia to talk with facilitators who will formally inform the MILF [about the resumption of talks],” said Rafael Seguis, an undersecretary at the Foreign Ministry and head of the government’s new peace panel talking with Muslim rebels.

Seguis said he was instructed by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to convey Manila’s desire to pursue peace in the south and to resume talks with the 11 000-member Muslim separatist group.

He said the peace panel would leave for Kuala Lumpur after a new peace policy, outlining the government’s strategy in dealing with Muslim rebels and other stakeholders in the south, was presented to Arroyo’s Cabinet next Tuesday.

Mohaqher Iqbal, the rebels’ chief negotiator, told Reuters the MILF would only agree to resume talks if an army offensive in Muslim areas is stopped and a third country would guarantee any agreement with Manila would be carried out.

”We have communicated our position to the Malaysians,” Iqbal said. ”We still have to see what the other side would offer to restart the talks. We’re open to negotiations.”

In her meetings with local officials in the Muslim autonomous region on Wednesday, Arroyo emphasised her government’s commitment to resume peace with Muslim rebels to end 40 years of conflict that has killed about 120 000 people and displaced two million.

Flash floods kill 11
Meanwhile, weeklong rains have triggered flash floods, landslides and sea surges across the Philippines, leaving at least 11 people dead and another 8 missing, officials said on Wednesday.

Six family members were killed in a landslide over the weekend in Northern Samar province, while a small boat with seven on board was reported missing in rough seas, the national disaster agency reported.

Other deaths included a man who drowned off central Panay island when his boat capsized in rough seas and a 15-year-old boy who was killed in a landslide in southern Cagayan de Oro city, officials said.

Three more drowning deaths were also reported.

A man was also reported missing in a flooded town in central Leyte province, the agency said.

More than 21 000 residents have sought temporary shelter in evacuation centers, the agency said.

The local Red Cross said a powerful sea surge of nearly up to three metres washed away about 150 coastal houses in La Union province north of Manila on Sunday, but there were no casualties.

Philippine National Red Cross chairperson Richard Gordon said the sea surge — which usually accompanies a strong storm — also was reported on southwestern Palawan island, where 1 000 residents lost their homes and moved in with relatives.

The weather bureau said the disturbance was caused by the tail end of a cold front that has dumped heavy rains in the eastern and southern Philippines since January 7. – Reuters and Sapa-AP