Cut Ties With Terrorists or Forfeit Aid, US Envoy Warns Rebels

Patrick Goodenough | October 2, 2003 | 8:14pm EDT
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Pacific Rim Bureau ( - The United States has warned Muslim rebels in the southern Philippines that unless they sever their links with terrorists, their strife-torn region will lose out on much-needed U.S. financial aid.

The warning comes just weeks before peace talks between the Philippine government and the 12,500-strong separatist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), are due to resume.

A U.S. commitment of $30 million in development aid for Mindanao forms a major part of what President Gloria Arroyo this week described as a "peace dividend" the southern region can expect, once a deal is finalized.

Washington backs the initiative, which aims to end a 25-year rebellion by the MILF - the largest of several groups fighting for a separate Muslim homeland in the south of the predominantly Catholic country.

Earlier this year the administration asked the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP), an independent body funded by Congress to promote peaceful resolution of international conflicts, to play a facilitating role in the talks.\b

The Institute last August sent a small delegation to Manila to meet with parties ahead of talks, expected to take place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, this month.

The peace effort has also won the support of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), Pope John Paul II and, last week, from U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan.

Annan's offer of U.N. help has been welcomed both by Arroyo and the MILF, and the president's spokesman, Ignacio Bunye, issued an upbeat statement Wednesday saying that "peace is within sight in Mindanao."

Amid that positive climate, U.S. Ambassador to Manila Francis Ricciardone's warning Wednesday struck a jarring note.

Addressing a foreign correspondents' forum, the envoy charged that the MILF has links to Jemaah Islamiah (JI) and was harboring terrorists in Mindanao.

The regional terrorist network is blamed for the Bali bombing a year ago and other attacks, and is strongly suspected to act as an extension of al-Qaeda in south-east Asia. The U.S. and the U.N. have designated JI as a foreign terrorist group.

Although he did not elaborate on the alleged MILF-JI ties, Ricciardone said: "'I would not be stating that concern unless we have excellent grounds for it."

Ricciardone urged the MILF to shun JI, which he said "does not bring peace and development, but only death and destruction to all who deal with it."

He warned that if the MILF or one of its factions proved itself to be a terrorist group, the U.S. would designate it as one.

The ambassador recalled that, shortly before his death of a heart attack last July, veteran MILF leader Salamat Hashim had in a letter assured the U.S. his group was committed to a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

Noting that the MILF was keen on U.N. support for its cause, he added, it made no sense for the MILF to have "anything to do with a foreign terrorist organization outlawed by the United Nations."

"The U.S. will not provide economic development assistance in areas controlled by the MILF if that organization maintains its ties to outlaws, terrorists, in violation of the written testimony of chairman Salamat in his last days."

But he also held out the prospect of U.S. assistance for the rundown Mindanao region.

"Should a genuine, practical, effective, durable peace come about, then very quickly we will have access to up to $30 million in programs."

Training claims

JI, many of whose members are Indonesians, is suspected of operating training camps in the southern Philippines, hosted by MILF elements.

A year ago, Singapore's government announced the arrests of 21 terrorist suspects, whom it said included 19 JI members and two belonged to the MILF.

Singapore said some of the suspects had undergone military training in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, and others at an MILF base in Mindanao.

Other episodes and arrests have added to suspicions of MILF-JI links, and when top JI bombmaker, Indonesian citizen Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi escaped from a Manila prison last July, he was believed to have fled to MILF areas of Mindanao, where the military launched a large - and as yet unsuccessful - manhunt.

The MILF has consistently denied the allegations of collusion with or training of foreigners.

In a statement issued Monday and posted on the MILF website, new chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim reiterated that "the present leadership of the MILF has pledged to continue the policies and programs left by its predecessor."

A Mindanao expert and author expressed the view Thursday that Ricciardone's warning was "a shot over the bow" of the MILF, cautioning the group in case it was having second thoughts about a peace deal.

It was also designed "to remind the secessionist movement that the complete success of the coming peace agreement includes ensuring that JI elements are either purged or prevented from joining the organization," said Prof. Patricio Abinales of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University, Japan.

Abinales, who hails from Mindanao, said he thought there was credence to the ambassador's charges.

He also thought the MILF would respond positively, "in part because its leaders - contrary to its rhetoric - are known for their pragmatism."

While the rebels would be reluctant to reveal the JI elements within their ranks, once a peace treaty was signed, "I do think the organization will quietly send these people back to Indonesia."

Vital aid

Abinales said the pledged U.S. aid was important, both for helping to rebuild war-torn areas, "but also in a way, jump-starting the Mindanao economy."

Furthermore, part of the aid is earmarked for capacity-building, and would be vital for helping to make local government more efficient and less corrupt.

He voiced optimism that a deal would be struck.

"I am quite positive that within next year a peace accord between the MILF and the Philippine government - with the indirect, quiet assistance of the U.S. and Malaysia - will be signed."

The U.S. has already spent millions of dollars on development and infrastructure projects in Mindanao, and has carried out joint military exercises with the Philippine military in the area.

Arroyo said last week that once a peace deal is signed, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the World Bank would head a multi-donor trust fund to "provide assistance for the demobilization, disarmament and reintegration of combatants and for the reconstruction and development of conflict-affected communities."

See also:
Links Between Al Qaeda And Filipino Militants Probed (Sept. 19, 2002)

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