Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - More Christian civilians have died in the southern Philippines, at the hands of an Islamic terrorist group that is about to restart preliminary peace talks with the government.
Early Wednesday, gunmen of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) attacked a mainly Christian town called M'Lang in the North Cotabato district, killing five people, including a six-year-old child.
According to accounts by community representatives and the army, the rebels fired rocket-propelled grenades into houses shortly before dawn.
Soldiers and militiamen were called in and drove off the attackers, killing five rebels, army spokesman Major Julieto Ando told Philippine media.
An MILF spokesman later interviewed by phone told Manila newspapers the group had been responsible for the attack, but that the target had been a military detachment. Civilians may have been caught in the crossfire, Eid Kabalu said.
But according to town representatives, there is no military detachment in M'Lang.
Vice mayor Lito Pinol said the victims had been killed as they slept. He called the attack "barbaric" and said the MILF had in the past undertaken to avoid harming civilians in its campaign against the government.
Wednesday's attack was the latest of several that have left Christian civilians dead.
One day earlier, Ando said, dozens of MILF rebels stopped a food truck nearby, tied up the Christian driver and his helper, and then shot and killed them before making off with the food.
Last week, in the same area, Christian passengers on a bus stopped by MILF gunmen were singled out for their inability to speak the local Muslim dialect. Six were shot and killed, police said.
In another incident, a bomb exploded near a cathedral in Cotabato City. No one was injured.
The 12,500-strong MILF has been fighting since the 1970s for an Islamic state in the Mindanao region, the southern portion of the largely Catholic Philippines. Peace talks with the government broke down in 2001.
In February, the government launched a new offensive against the group, capturing a key stronghold in fighting. MILF then called for retaliation attacks, leading to a spate of attacks, and scores of deaths.
Among those attacks was a bomb blast at the international airport in Davao City on March 4, in which an American Christian missionary was among the 22 dead. The MILF has denied responsibility, although an MILF member killed in the blast was believed to have been carrying the bomb when it exploded.
Government negotiators headed Thursday to the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, to meet with MILF representatives in a bid to revive formal peace talks.
Presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye said the talks were exploratory and the government officials planned to "check the atmosphere for discussions."
At a meeting in Manila where the decision to resume talks was taken, President Gloria Arroyo reportedly told Mindanao political leaders she was aware that around 70 per cent of the population of their region no longer wanted the government to pursue peace talks with the rebels.
One of those present at the meeting told a Mindanao news agency afterwards that Arroyo had said although the negotiation approach was unpopular, she said, "I will do it because it is the right thing."
One of the MILF's non-negotiable demands has been that any peace deal in Mindanao be monitored by observers from the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the grouping of 53 Muslim or mostly Muslim countries.
The group is also unhappy about the fact the government has outstanding arrest warrants for its top leaders.
According to the UK-based Barnabas Fund, a Christian charity working among Christians in Muslim parts of the world, Christian communities in Mindanao are often targeted by the Islamic militants.
"Christian ministers and missionaries have in the past been singled out for particular torture and gruesome execution because of their faith," it said this week.
Apart from the MILF, the much smaller Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), notorious for hostage-takings and gruesome murders, continues to be the focus of military operations in the region.
Security officials and researchers have established links between the two groups and extremist Islamic networks in the wider Southeast Asia region and beyond, including al Qaeda.
Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.