In Philippines, Abandoned Deal Reignites Rebel War

Lapayan, Philippines
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 14, 2008

LAPAYAN, Philippines -- After years of calm, the oldest insurgency in Asia has flared into a brutish war, with burned villages, slain families, artillery bombardments, vigilante death squads and hundreds of thousands of displaced people.

The match was lit last month when the Philippine government abruptly backed out of an all-but-done peace deal it had been quietly negotiating for years. That enraged Muslim rebels here on Mindanao, a lush and resource-rich island where Muslims and Christians have been elbowing each other for power and land for more than four centuries.

At 4:30 a.m. Aug. 18, aggrieved rebels attacked this mostly Christian village of 4,000 residents. The rebels looted rice and canned sardines. They doused 22 houses with gasoline and set them on fire, while killing 13 Christian villagers, according to a government tally. The youngest victim was 10; the oldest, 95.

Tipped off about the raid, Muslims in the village fled before the rebels arrived. But if the Muslims come home, they face the vengeance of a Christian vigilante group called the Ilaga, which last operated in the 1970s.

"The Ilaga have risen from the dead," said Roger Vacalares, a council member in this village that still smells of burned houses. "They have automatic weapons. We need that kind of group."

With attacks like this one, a savage cycle of fear, fighting and intimidation has begun again in Mindanao. Relief officials predict the mess will churn on for months. The International Committee of the Red Cross is appealing for increased aid from abroad to feed, house and care for 500,000 civilians it estimates have been affected by fighting.

The Philippine government insists that its dispute with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) over the expansion here of a semiautonomous political entity for Muslims can be resolved only by talking, not by fighting.

But President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has renounced the autonomy agreement negotiated by her appointees -- after its legality was questioned by the country's highest court and after its once-secret provisions for Muslim autonomy proved unpopular among the country's Christian majority.

The president has dissolved the panel she created to negotiate with the rebels and has dispatched 3,000 additional soldiers and 1,000 more police officers to Mindanao. Her government is demanding that three rebel commanders, who it says are responsible for "criminal" attacks on Christian civilians, be turned over before peace talks can resume. It has offered rewards equivalent to $218,000 for arrest of the commanders and says it will pay a $540,000 bounty to the MILF if it turns them over.

The Philippine military has attacked rebel encampments with artillery and air bombardment and, in the process, destroyed many villages. The hunt for the commanders is a major military operation. They control about 5,000 soldiers, nearly half of the MILF's army, said Gen. Alexander B. Yano, chief of staff of the Philippine armed forces.

"We expect an extended period of terrorist and guerrilla actions," Yano said in an interview at his headquarters in Manila. "After a week of semi-conventional fighting, the rebels have splintered into guerrilla formations."

Because the MILF cannot control its renegade commanders, Yano said, "We will do it for them. They committed crimes, and they will have to pay for that."

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