Philippines halts offensives against Muslim rebels

MANILA, Philippines — The Philippine government ordered its military Thursday to stop offensives against Muslim separatist rebels in a bid to restart peace talks, a move welcomed by the guerrillas.

Negotiations with the 11,000-member Moro Islamic Liberation Front broke down last year, when the government accused the rebels of launching attacks on Christian villages after the Supreme Court threw out a preliminary Muslim autonomy deal.

Chief government negotiator Rafael Seguis said President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s order is aimed at providing a conducive atmosphere for the resumption of talks.

He said it would also allow some 300,000 displaced villagers to return to their homes and farms in the southern Philippines, where minority Muslims have been fighting for self-rule in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation for decades.

Sporadic clashes have been focused in the marshy heartland of the south, particularly Maguindanao province, about 560 miles (900 kilometers) south of Manila, and outlying provinces.

Government troops “shall suspend all offensive operations in the conflict-affected areas … and revert to active defense mode,” said Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita, the most senior Cabinet member.

He said, however, that police will continue hunting three rebel commanders accused of defying their leaders’ orders and re-igniting the clashes last August, when the guerrillas rampaged through Christian com… >>>

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