Muslim rebels given until June 1 to stop attacks

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

MANILA, Philippines -- The government threatened Tuesday to declare a Muslim rebel group a terrorist organization unless it stops attacking civilians and takes tangible steps toward ending violence in the southern Philippines within two weeks.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, blamed for a bomb attack that killed 10 people Saturday, has until June 1 to renounce terrorism and turn over members responsible for recent attacks on civilians, presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye said.

Otherwise, the government will declare the MILF a terrorist organization and ask the United States to include the group on its own terrorist list, Bunye said. A U.S. listing imposes financial and visa penalties on group members.

The Philippine government has been reluctant to put a terrorist tag on the MILF, who have been fighting for a separate Muslim homeland, for fear it may disrupt sporadic peace talks with the rebels.

But after a spate of bombings and raids left more than 200 civilians and security forces dead this year, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo warned the rebels that "time was running out" for them to prove they really want peace and to distance themselves from foreign terrorists.

"The government is nearing a decision point on whether to declare the MILF a terrorist organization," Arroyo said in a statement Tuesday.

The ultimatum was given after a Cabinet security committee discussed the issue late Monday.

Arroyo said the decision will be made after foreign ministers from the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference meet in Tehran later this month. The ministers are expected to discuss the situation in the southern Philippines, where minority Muslim rebels long have fought for autonomy in this predominantly Christian nation.

Some Muslim nations -- particularly neighboring Malaysia, which has been mediating peace talks between the government and rebels -- have lamented the slow progress of negotiations.

Malaysian ambassador Mohamed Taufik said time was running out for the MILF to seriously consider how it wants to be regarded by the Philippines and Muslim countries.

Bunye said the rebels "have to dissociate themselves from any of the terrorist organizations -- the Jemaah Islamiyah, the al-Qaida, the Abu Sayyaf -- and they should stop immediately these acts which tend to harm civilians."

Abu Sayyaf is a smaller, more violent Muslim rebel group operating in the southern Philippines. Jemaah Islamiyah, a regional group, has been blamed for bombings in Indonesia -- including the October 2002 Bali bombing that killed at least 202 people -- and thwarted attacks in Singapore. Both groups are believed to be connected to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network.

The MILF has denied involvement in Saturday's bombing, which killed 10 and injured 40 near a market in Koronadal. But they say they have the right to defend themselves against a military offensive that drove them from a major camp in February.

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