May 2, 2008 8:41 PM
Muslim rebels have forced hundreds of mainly Christian families off their farms in the southern Philippines, escalating tensions in the region ahead of the withdrawal of Malaysian peace monitors next week.
Rolando Garcia, mayor of Kalamansig town on the troubled southern island of Mindanao, said that heavily-armed members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) claimed the farmers’ land belonged to the Muslim minority.
“We have about 1,200 people in our temporary shelter areas…afraid to return to their farms,” Garcia told reporters, adding rice was about to be harvested when the rebels came late on Wednesday.
The 11,000-strong MILF is meant to be observing a ceasefire and a spokesman for the rebel group said he was unaware of any land seizures.
“We have not received any report on that,” Eid Kabalu told reporters, adding the MILF leadership has ordered units to abide by a 2003 truce even after the Malaysian peace monitors withdraw.
Some MILF members are frustrated that long-running peace talks with Manila for the creation of a homeland for Muslims in the south of the largely Catholic country have been stalled since December 2007.
Last week, Malaysia said around 20 of 41 peacekeepers would leave on May 10 and the rest will be withdrawn by the end of August because the peace process, which Kuala Lumpur was chairing, was not moving fast enough.
Garcia said many Christian communities in the south feared of similar MILF attacks on their farms and villages as frustration boils over.
But analysts have said they do not expect the ceasefire to break down because most MILF members are war weary after a near 40-year conflict that has killed 120,000 people and displaced two million.
The MILF has questioned the sincerity of the government in wanting to create a Muslim homeland in the south.
Although President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has repeatedly said she wants peace, hawks in her cabinet are opposed to giving large swathes of land to Muslims and politically powerful Christian clans in the south would oppose a deal.Source: Reuters