Muslim rebels in Philippines reject peace plan

Muslim rebels waging a decades-long insurgency in the Philippines said Monday they would refuse to hold direct talks with the government until it modified its roadmap for peace. Moro Islamic Liberation Front leader Murad Ebrahim said his negotiators would not meet their government counterparts next week as scheduled because the two sides' positions were too far apart. "With this situation we feel that there is no point of discussion between the two panels," Murad told reporters at Camp Darapanan, the MILF's rural headquarters on the outskirts of Cotabato city, in the southern Philippines. Murad said the MILF would instead ask the Malaysian facilitator of the talks to meet separately with both sides in an effort to have the government alter its peace plan, which he described as an "exercise in futility". "It is necessary (to have) facilitation in order to help the two positions of the panels get nearer each other, and create an atmosphere conducive to discussions," he said. Both sides stepped up diplomatic efforts this year to quickly end the conflict that began in the 1970s and has claimed more than 150,000 lives, but Murad's comments signalled a peace accord remained as elusive as ever. Murad said the government's offer, made last month during the last round of talks in Kuala Lumpur, focused too heavily on socio-economic reforms, while ignoring the MILF's quest for an autonomous substate for Muslims in the south. "We need them to understand that the problem is a political problem and the solution must be a political solution," he said. He said the determination of the Philippines' Muslim minority population to have an autonomous homeland in the south was the "root cause" of the conflict and the government must agree to discuss this for peace talks to continue. The government has not released full details of its roadmap for peace, but said the broad principles focus on achieving socio-economic reforms in the impoverished south of the country and other "doables" in an initial phase. The government has also offered what it describes as a form of autonomy for Muslims in the south. But Murad said Muslims would have no real autonomy under the government's plan, and that plans for a substate allowing much more freedom from the central powers in Manila must be created. The head of the government's negotiating panel, Marvic Leonen, said his team would not change its position just to break the stalemate. "The government has a solid proposal... we are standing by our proposal," Leonen told AFP, insisting each side's offers should be used as the basis for negotiations and compromise. Nevertheless, Leonen said the government was open to Murad's plan for Malaysian facilitation, although he cautioned it should not be used as a long-term replacement for direct talks between the two sides. Murad also said that, despite the current stalemate, the MILF leadership remained committed to pursuing a final settlement peacefully and respecting a ceasefire that has been in place since 2003. However, he warned a younger generation of Muslim militants would not accept the peace process dragging on forever.