Philippines tiptoes around Kosovo recognition

MANILA Tue Feb 19, 2008 3:28am EST

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MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines shied away from recognizing Kosovo's independence on Tuesday fearing it could complicate peace talks with Muslim separatists in the south of the archipelago.

"While the Philippines does not oppose the idea of independence for Kosovo, it would prefer a settlement...taking into account the internationally accepted principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity," Alberto Romulo, the country's Secretary of Foreign Affairs, said in a statement.

"The Philippines believes that a lasting solution, including that of independence, should be based on a negotiated solution, mutually acceptable to all parties."

Muslims in the southern Philippines have been fighting for some measure of independence from the Catholic central government in Manila for decades.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the country's largest Muslim separatist group, welcomed Kosovo's declaration and its recognition by the United States and some European states.

"The taboo has been shattered and no state can argue that secession or independence is not within the rule of the game in the United Nations," Khaled Musa, the MILF's deputy spokesman, said in a statement posted on the rebel's Web site www.luwaran.com.

"What is prohibited for decades is now a virtual part of international law."

But Musa said the MILF had no plans to declare Muslim dominated areas in the southern Philippines independent.

"Right at the start of the talks in 1997, the government and the MILF negotiators have agreed not to bring up the issue of independence."

Negotiations for an ancestral homeland for about 3 million Muslims have stalled because of fears among rebels that Manila will shrink the envisioned territory. The deadlock has riled local communities in the south who were hoping for a breakthrough this year.

The conflict has killed more than 120,000 people, displaced 2 million and kept millions more in dire poverty despite their region having billions of dollars worth of untapped mineral wealth and fertile farmlands.

(Reporting by Carmel Crimmins; Additional reporting by Manny Mogato; Editing by David Fogarty)

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