Showdown between government and MILF before peace deal
According to Father Sandalo, PIME superior in the Philippines, recent violence between the army and rebels forces is an attempt to establish a stronger position before the final agreement is signed. Bishops and rebel leaders call for “peace and development” in Mindanao. However, only today 16 civilians lost their lives.

Manila (AsiaNews) – Rather than a war the latest clashes between the Filipino army and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) are more of an attempt by both sides to flex their respective muscles ahead of the signing of the agreement that would expand the territory of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), this according to Fr Gianni Sandalo, PIME superior in the Philippines, who spoke to AsiaNews about the violence that has recently caused more bloodshed in the country.

This morning separatist rebels carried out a series of raids in Mindanao, especially in the provinces of Lanao del Norte and Sarangani, that left 16 people dead and many houses torched. Some civilians were hacked to death by machetes.

In a harsh statement President Gloria Arroyo branded the attacks by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) guerrillas as “sneaky and treacherous” and in clear violation of peace negotiations, and ordered the army to “defend every inch” of soil against the Muslim rebels, who targeted predominantly Christian settlements like the town of Kolambugan.

“President Arroyo has pursued a policy of peace and order in the region,” Father Sandalo said. By contrast, the MILF has increased its attacks against civilians in Mindanao.

Both sides are vying for a stronger position ahead of the signing of the Memorandum of Agreement which should define the ARMM’s expanded territory.

“Muslims are demanding more than a thousand villages; the government is willing to concede 700,” said the PIME superior in the Philippines.

Father Sandalo reaffirmed the call made by Filipino bishops to the MILF leadership to use restraint because an escalation in violence would only affect the civilian population which is reliving a spiral of “terror and fear.”

In the last few days “thousands of people in central Mindanao have fled their home villages” to escape the fighting and possible retaliations. For this reason “I hope that an agreement is reached that can guarantee the safety of the people.”

In reiterating the bishops’ position, Father Sandalo said that he hoped that the “peace process would finally lead to the signing of the Memorandum of Agreement” even if some “points still need to be worked out.”

Last Friday a joint statement by the bishops and MILF leaders expressed hope for a cease-fire and renewed talks between government and rebels.

“We must promote peace, solidarity, justice and the development of Mindanao,” said Mgr Fernando Capalla, archbishop of Davao, and Mohagher Iqbal from the MILF.

Both sides said they want “greater transparency” in the peace deal which should “promote dialogue between religions and school programmes that can adequately favour the region’s socio-economic development.”

For Father Sandalo, “a deal is possible and desirable but right now we don’t know when it will be signed.”