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World News

Philippine rebels criticize new government negotiator

MANILA (Reuters) - Muslim rebels negotiating to end rebellion in the southern Philippines criticized the government on Sunday for naming a Roman Catholic priest to head its peace panel, saying the decision would downgrade the talks.

Mohaqher Iqbal, the chief peace negotiator of the Philippines' largest Muslim separatist rebel group, gestures during an interview with Reuters at a riverside hideout outside Cotabato City, the financial hub of poor Islamic communities on the troubled southern island of Mindanao, January 16, 2006. Muslim rebels negotiating to end rebellion in the southern Philippines criticized the government on Sunday for naming a Roman Catholic priest to head its peace panel, saying the decision would downgrade the talks. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

On Saturday, the government appointed Eliseo Mercado, former president of Catholic-run Notre Dame University on the southern island of Mindanao, to replace its chief peace negotiator with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) who resigned.

Silvestre Afable, who was the communications director at the office of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo when he became chief negotiator in 2003, did not give any reason for his abrupt resignation.

“Changing the horse in the middle of a stream is an intriguing decision,” Mohaqher Iqbal, the rebels’ chief negotiator, said in a statement posted on the MILF website www.luwaran.com on Sunday.

“It’s a setback to the peace process.”

The rebel leader said the MILF has “the highest respect” for Mercado, who headed a community-based ceasefire monitoring group in the early 2000s, but doubted whether he had any political clout within the administration.

Another MILF leader said the decision to appoint a negotiator who was not from the government was “a deliberate downgrading of the peace process”, adding the rebels prefer a negotiator who has clear authority and a mandate from the government.

Jun Mantawil, head of the MILF peace panel secretariat, said the rebels feared appointment of a non-government official might cause a problem with Malaysian officials, facilitating the talks since March 2001.

“There is a protocol in the negotiation that all the parties, especially the state... must follow,” Mantawil said, adding it might look awkward for a Malaysian official holding a cabinet rank to deal with a priest who has no government position. The government has been talking with Muslim rebels to end nearly 40 years of conflict that has killed more than 120,000 people and displaced 2 million in the south of the mainly Roman Catholic country.

Talks over the size and wealth of a proposed Muslim homeland have been stalled since September 2006 although backroom negotiations have continued, resulting in a breakthrough in December when Manila agreed to grant Muslims the right of self-determination.

Talks were set to resume in Malaysia in July, negotiators have said.

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