The Philippines' largest Muslim rebel group accused the government on Wednesday of deliberately delaying the resumption of peace talks and potentially jeopardising a long-awaited end to a brutal conflict.
Khaled Musa, deputy spokesman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), questioned the government's creation of a legal team to review a draft agreement on the creation of a Muslim homeland in the south of the mainly Roman Catholic state.
"Why is there a need to get the services of other lawyers if the intention is not to delay the resumption of the talks?" Musa said in a statement posted on the separatists' website www.luwara.com.
"This is destroying the trust and confidence built over the years by the parties," said Musa, who also sits on the MILF central committee, adding it could help "hawks" on both sides to further block negotiations.
The MILF has been in on-off talks with the government for more than 10 years, but an agreement appears distant to end nearly 40 years of conflict that has killed 120,000 people and displaced 2 million.
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 certainly oppose a deal.
A MONKEY WRENCH
Retired general Rodolfo Garcia, the government's chief peace negotiator, disagreed with the rebels' view, saying Manila was only making sure it was not violating any laws in entering into an agreement with the MILF.
"This is the last hurdle," Garcia told Reuters in an interview. "I am very optimistic the legal team would give us the go signal to push through the agreement on ancestral domain. I am sure the lawyers would see through the political costs of the deal."
In December 2007, the two sides were close to signing a deal on the creation of an ancestral homeland for 3 million Muslims in the south, when talks stalled over constitutional issues.
Jun Mantawil, head of the MILF peace panel secretariat, said the two sides had reconciled their differences and were close to signing a deal on an ancestral homeland after informal meetings in Kuala Lumpur last Feb. 1.
Last month, a Malaysian official shuttled between Manila and the MILF's base in the south to firm up the deal, Mantawil said, adding the two sides had been ready to sign an agreement after the Malaysian elections and last week's Easter holidays in Manila.
"This intriguing development could not only delay talks, it might even throw a monkey's wrench on the peace process," Mantawil said.