DAVAO CITY -- While the government is willing to negotiate with Moro rebels, hundreds of Muslim guerrillas have undergone combat training to bolster their military muscle in case the planned peace talks falter, reports said.
President Benigno Aquino III and the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) have expressed readiness to resume Malaysian-brokered peace negotiations as early as September after the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
The talks collapsed in 2008, sparking massive fighting, and resumed in the final months of Aquino's predecessor, former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, without reaching any major accord.
Aquino has said efforts to turn around the country will be futile if it continues to be wracked by violent insurgencies. He has begun forming negotiation teams to resume talks with the Moro rebels and communist guerrillas.
The Malaysian government, expressing willingness to follow President Aquino's promise, said it will mediate with the talks again. Ambassador Dato Seri Dr. Ibrahim Saad said his government has already finished choosing its members of mediating panel.
"Our visit to Mindanao is an expression of support for the talks between the GRP (Government of the Republic of the Philippines) and the MILF... We are happy that President Aquino has stated in his State of the Nation Address that he is willing to open talks again after Ramadan. We have prepared for this," said Saad in an interview at Central 911 office along Ponciano St. in this city.
As a protocol, Saad said he informed officials in the Philippines Tuesday that "new faces" will compose their mediation panel from Malaysia.
"Considering that the Philippines has a new President and also Malaysia has a new Prime Minister, then most probably all the members of those who will talk will be new faces. From us, it will all be new," said Saad, referring to Prime Minister Dato' Sri Haji Mohd. Najib bin Tun Haji Abdul Razak, who was appointed in April 3, 2009.
As to where the peace talks would start, given most members of the peace panel will be new, Saad said they would start "from what has been agreed on."
But while fresh talks loomed, the Philippine military has monitored at least nine separate combat training by hundreds of Moro fighters and recruits in their strongholds in southern Mindanao region in the first half of the year.
According to a military report that assessed national security threats, the Moro rebels have been holding combat training and "acquisition of logistics to ensure readiness if the peace talks will not prosper." It added the rebels plan to intensify kidnappings and extortion to gain funds.
About 230 rebels underwent training on combat tactics for three days last March in a hinterland camp called Palestine near Butig town in Lanao del Sur province. Several rebels joined a month-long training on intelligence-gathering in the same camp that month while 247 regular fighters were trained on "rigid jungle warfare" for 15 days in the southernmost province of Tawi Tawi, the report said.
About a hundred recruits were given basic military training for three months in Lanao del Sur starting in March. Other training involving an undetermined number of rebels focused on first aid and leadership, it said.
MILF negotiator Mohagher Iqbal acknowledged his group has continued to train fighters and seek weapons, which, he said, were obtained in the past from local and foreign sources, mostly gunrunning syndicates.
"That's normal in a revolutionary group," Iqbal told The Associated Press. "It's not a sign of bad faith because there have always been two options while the problem remains unresolved: the peace process or war."
Iqbal, however, said his group has primarily focused on the "peaceful track" and will reconstitute its peace panel once the government negotiating team has been set up.
He denied that the rebels plan to resort to kidnappings for funds, saying they have relied mostly on civilian financial contributions.
More than 120,000 people have died in the decades-long conflict in Mindanao, homeland of minority Muslims in this predominantly Roman Catholic country.
A shaky truce between government troops and the rebels has held for a year since their last major fighting in Mindanao's marshy heartland that killed hundreds and displaced as many as 750,000 people. (JCZ/AP/Sun.Star Davao/Sunnex)