Philippines: Islamic states urge Manila, rebels to resume talks

MANILA, Nov 13 (Reuters) - An organisation of Islamic states has called on the Philippines and the largest Muslim rebel group in the Catholic-majority nation to return to peace negotiations, expressing concern over worsening violence.

Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, secretary-general of the 56-member Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), also warned the violence would strengthen "undisciplined elements who seek to abort the peace process and fuel extremist feelings".

Ihsanoglu, in a statement on the OIC website, urged both sides to "save the peace process from sliding into further deterioration and resume negotiations" as he noted that more than half a million civilians had been displaced in Muslim communities on the southern island of Mindanao.

Both the Philippine government and Muslim guerrilla leaders claim to be committed to the peaceful settlement of the nearly 40 years of conflict that has killed 120,000 people, displaced 2 million and stunted growth in the resource-rich south.

Mohaqher Iqbal, the rebels' chief negotiator, said the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) was still interested in seeking a peaceful solution, but was not hopeful of striking any deal with the present government.

"We did not start this problem," Iqbal told Reuters. "We believe it would be very difficult to restart the talks because the government has dissolved its panel and the court has struck down the ancestral domain agreement as unconstitutional."

He said the rebel leadership has completely lost its trust in the government's ability to commit to any political deal and carry it out faithfully.

Speaking at the United Nations in New York on Wednesday, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said her government remained committed to the peace process despite escalating violence in the south.

"However, before we can actively and effectively reactivate the peace process, we must first bring stability back to the island and restore order," Arroyo said.

She was also seeking guarantees from the MILF that responsible elements have regained control.

Nearly 300 people have been killed in nearly three months of fighting between security forces and renegades from the MILF. The fighting has displaced more than 650,000 people.

Violence erupted in mid-August after the Philippines' high court halted the signing of a deal between the government and the MILF that would have expanded an existing Muslim autonomous region, giving it wider political, social and economic powers.

Aid workers expressed concerned about the health of those displaced by armed clashes and aerial bombardments.

"Because large numbers of displaced people are crowded together, they are vulnerable to diarrhoea and respiratory infection," said Robert Paterson, an International Committee of the Red Cross medical delegate in the Philippines.

There have already been three deaths due to diarrhoea in the affected region, he said in a statement released in Geneva.

(Additional reporting by Laura MacInnis in Geneva) (Reporting by Manny Mogato; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)


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