ZAMBOANGA CITY, 6 August 2003 — Hashim Salamat, the reclusive leader of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), has died of complications from a heart ailment and an acute ulcer, the separatist group finally confirmed yesterday.
MILF officials admitted that Salamat died on July 13 and that he was was buried on the same day in the town of Butig in Lanao del Sur province, about 900 kilometers south of Manila.
MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu said Salamat, the founder of the MILF, had been bed-ridden for three weeks.
“He was 70 years old. That’s just an estimate because we don’t celebrate birthdays,” Kabalu said.
Salamat left behind a wife and five young children, the spokesman said.
Ghazali Jaafar, the rebel group’s vice chairman for political affairs, said it took them long to announce the death because the MILF’s leaders had to choose a successor and inform Salamat’s relatives first.
Jaafar said that after a weeklong meeting, the Front’s central committee chose the group’s military chief of staff, Al-Haj Murad, as the new MILF chairman.
Jaafar called Salamat’s death “a great loss to us,” but said there will be no changes in the MILF’s revolutionary policies, including its intention of pursuing a peaceful, political settlement of their rebellion.
Salamat’s renunciation of terrorism in June was one of the key demands made by the government for talks to end the MILF’s campaign for a Muslim homeland.
“There will be no changes, we’ll pursue the peace talks,” Jaafar said. “The MILF remains committed to the peaceful settlement of the problem through negotiations.”
Eduardo Ermita, presidential adviser for the peace process, expressed optimism that the talks would proceed smoothly despite Salamat’s death, calling Murad a “very reasonable person.”
Ermita said the two sides are expecting an invitation from Malaysia within days to proceed to Kuala Lumpur for peace talks.
Salamat helped form the MILF in 1982 when he led a faction that broke away from the Moro National Liberation Front to pursue a separate state based on a more purist interpretation of Islam. Vices such as smoking and drinking are banned in MILF camps.
The MNLF signed a peace accord with the government in September 1996.
“Salamat was a religious teacher and was a fundamentalist who believed in an Islamic state,” said a senior government official familiar with the peace talks. “Murad has been more open, so this could be a good development.”
Malaysian Ambassador Mohamed Taufik expressed regrets for Salamat’s death but said it would not derail the planned talks. Malaysia was ready to work with Murad, he said. “It shouldn’t, wouldn’t affect the tone of the peace talks,” Taufik said of Salamat’s death.
The government had issued arrest warrants for Salamat and four other top MILF leaders, each with a 5 million peso ($94,340) bounty, stemming from murder charges over a string of bombings that have left more than 200 people, most of them civilians, dead this year. The rebels denied involvement, and the warrants were suspended as part of a deal to resume peace talks.
Negotiations have been stalled since 2001, most recently because of bombings and raids the government blamed on “terrorists” within the MILF’s ranks. The government is offering them autonomy, but not independence.
Salamat went underground on Sept. 24, 1972 — four days after late dictator Ferdinand Marcos imposed martial-law rule amid worsening political and economic problems. “We were together when we entered the jungle four days after martial law was declared,” Jaafar said.
Salamat organized the Moro National Liberation Front in the early 1970s together with a Marxist student activist, Nur Misuari and other Muslim militants. Salamat had a falling out with Misuari in the late 1970s and formed a separate faction, the MILF.
Fluent in Arabic, Salamat developed strong connections with other Muslim groups and leaders, especially in the Middle East, that helped the MILF gain international recognition as a Muslim rebel group, Jafaar said.
Police intelligence officials have accused the MILF of links with Jemaah Islamiyah, an Al-Qaeda-linked group in Southeast Asia blamed for last year’s Bali bombing that killed 202 people, and of providing training camps for foreign terrorists. The MILF has denied any links with terror groups. (Additional input from agencies)