Mama Gubal & Associated Press
Thursday 8 July 2004
Last Update 8 July 2004 12:00 am
COTABATO CITY, 8 July 2004 — Muslim separatist rebels said yesterday said the United States should not pressure them into signing a peace pact with the Philippine government, after the US ambassador accused them of risking $30 million in development assistance by stalling.
“The $30 million is not of our own making. We did not ask that from the US,” said Eid Kabalu, spokesman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the main Muslim rebel group holding peace talks with the government. He said the group will accept any help but only without conditions.
“The MILF had declared its willingness to accept financial aid aimed at developing conflict-affected areas in Mindanao regardless of origin, provided, that such assistance shall be given in good faith and without strings attached,” he said.
“We cannot rush the peace process just because of $30 million. The problem of the (Filipino Muslims) is not worth $30 million,” he said.
Kabalu said the aid was offered by US President George W. Bush after MILF founder and chairman Salamat Hashim wrote to him last year to express commitment to a peaceful solution to the quarter-century insurgency. Salamat died in July last year.
US Ambassador Francis Ricciardone said Tuesday that delays in the peace process have led to the diversion of some of the funds to projects in Mindanao that are outside areas where the guerrillas operate. The funds have to be spent or reprogrammed by the end of September, the end of the US fiscal year, he said.
The rebels have been fighting for a separate Muslim homeland for the last three decades. Last year, a cease-fire took effect and Malaysia agreed to host peace talks and lead a team of international observers to Mindanao island, where the rebels are based. But the process has dragged on.
Defense Secretary Eduardo Ermita said formal negotiations are expected to resume in Malaysia next month on the number of international peace monitors and the issue of land rights.
Kabalu said he didn’t know when the talks would proceed. He blamed the government for the delay, saying it has not fully complied with previous agreements.
Malaca?ang Palace, meanwhile, reacted angrily to US concern about terrorist training camps in the south of the country and said it regretted a decision to withdraw its $30 million pledge for Mindanao.
Ricciardone had said Washington was concerned about the camps on Mindanao which he said were being run by Jemaah Islamiyah, the Al-Qaeda linked group behind the 2002 Bali bombings.
Presidential spokesman spokesman Ignacio Bunye said the Philippine government was doing everything it could to fight terrorism.
“We’ve been engaged in fighting terrorism since day one,” said Bunye.
“We acknowledge the concern of the US government, but we do not have to be told to do our duty,” he told a news conference.
Assistant Defense Secretary Ricardo Blancaflor said troops continue to track down the suspected foreign terrorists but the task is not that easy.
The makeshift nature of their alleged training camps also complicates the search, he said. “Nobody puts up a separate camp with a distinct flag or distinct perimeter fence,” Blancaflor said.