Asia Crisis

Muslim rebels halt attacks in Philippine south

MANILA, July 25 (Reuters) - The Philippines' largest Muslim rebel group ordered its armed units to halt attacks on military targets on Saturday, a top guerrilla leader said, paving the way for the revival of peace talks stalled since August 2008.

"Effective today, we are suspending our military actions in all areas where our armed units are operating," Mohaqher Iqbal, head of the rebels' peace panel, told Reuters by telephone from a guerrilla base on the southern island of Mindanao.

On Thursday, the government ordered a unilateral truce in the south of the mainly Roman Catholic country to convince the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to return to negotiations to end 40 years of conflict that has killed 120,000 people. [ID:nMAN522377]

The two sides are expected to meet next week in Kuala Lumpur to prepare for the resumption of talks and the return of about 60 peace monitors from Malaysia, Brunei, Libya and Japan who pulled out in November 2008.

The rebels' decision to reciprocate Manila's truce came after MILF chairman Al haj Ebrahim Murad met with the rebels' central committee on Saturday. Murad signed the rebels' truce order, Iqbal said.

Iqbal said the 12,000-member Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces were ordered to "support and cooperate with efforts to revitalise and strengthen ceasefire mechanisms on the ground".

The government ended peace negotiations in August 2008 after a deal to expand an existing Muslim autonomous region on Mindanao was stopped by the Supreme Court, which angered rogue elements of the MILF who attacked largely Catholic communities.

Nearly 600 people have been killed since then, many of them civilians caught in the fighting, and about 2,000 houses in Maguindanao province alone were burned down. It forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes and farms.

Iqbal said his group would discuss with the government plans to return more than 300,000 displaced families to their homes and farms before the start of Ramadan, Islam's holy month, in late August. (Reporting by Manny Mogato; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)