Aquino Raises Using Force Against Rebels in Southern Philippines

Philippine President Benigno Aquino said he would deploy the “full force of the state” if needed to protect civilians as a standoff between troops and Muslim rebels dragged on for the fifth day in the restive south.

“There’s a thin line that can’t be crossed, putting civilians’ lives at risk,” Aquino said in a televised briefing yesterday from Zamboanga city, occupied in parts by rebels since Sept. 9. “When that line is crossed, I will be forced to not only show, but use the full force of the state,” he said.

The rebel Moro National Liberation Front “will be starting war” if its forces are attacked, Emmanuel Fontanilla, a spokesman for the group’s leader Nur Misuari, told ABS-CBN by phone yesterday.

The violence is complicating efforts to end four decades of insurgency on the island of Mindanao. Nearly 30,000 people are displaced, Adriano Fuego, a regional spokesman for the Office of Civil Defense, said by phone yesterday. At least 22 people have been killed, military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala said in a mobile phone message, while about 100 members of a separate rebel group tried to enter nearby Lamitan city yesterday and a two-hour firefight wounded six soldiers.

Aquino needs to reach out to Misuari and ask his men to stop the attacks, Rommel Banlaoi, executive director of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research said by phone. “Without opening the channels of communication, there’s no other direction but continuing violence, which can spill over to other areas,” he said.

‘Strategic Advantage’

A prolonged standoff in Zamboanga would give the MNLF a “strategic advantage” and highlight Aquino’s difficulty in bringing peace to the area, Banlaoi said. “People are clamoring for decisive action,” he said.

Escalating violence could be “very damaging” to the business and investment climate in Mindanao, which accounted for 15 percent of the Philippine gross domestic product last year, IHS Global Insight Asia-Pacific Chief Economist Rajiv Biswas said in a note yesterday.

The fighting coincides with the resumption of peace negotiations with a separate rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, threatening government efforts to end an insurgency that has killed about 200,000 people and stifled development in Mindanao.

The violence “is a reflection of the inability of the Aquino administration to come up with a much more inclusive approach to creating peace in Mindanao,” said Richard Javad Heydarian, a political science lecturer at the Ateneo de Manila University. “What is needed is an expanded table of negotiation.” The MNLF and founder Misuari are not involved in the peace talks which resumed this week.

Meeting Delay

At Misuari’s request, Indonesia postponed a meeting between the MNLF and Philippine government representatives on a review of their 1996 peace deal, Aquino’s peace adviser, Teresita Deles, told ABS-CBN by phone yesterday. Misuari was head of the MNLF when the accord was signed and later served as governor of the autonomous Muslim region in the south.

Soldiers are keeping a tight cordon around areas in Zamboanga, Zagala told ABS-CBN by phone yesterday. The military supports negotiations with rebels loyal to Misuari, Zagala said.

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