Military: Philippine Muslim rebels continue combat training, seek arms despite planned talks

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Hundreds of Muslim guerrillas have undergone combat training and sought more weapons in the southern Philippines to bolster their military muscle in case planned peace talks with the government falter, a military report said Wednesday.

New President Benigno Aquino III and the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front have expressed readiness to resume Malaysian-brokered peace negotiations as early as September after the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. The talks collapsed in 2008, sparking massive fighting, and resumed in the final months of the tenure of Aquino's predecessor without reaching any major accord.

Aquino, who succeeded Gloria Macapagal Arroyo on June 30, has said efforts to turn around his impoverished Southeast Asian nation will be futile if it continues to be wracked by violent insurgencies. He has begun forming negotiation teams to resume talks with the Moro rebels and communist guerrillas.

While fresh talks loomed, the military has monitored at least nine separate combat trainings by hundreds of Muslim fighters and recruits in their strongholds in southern Mindanao region in the first half of the year, according to a military report that assessed national security threats. A copy of the report was seen by The Associated Press.

Muslim guerrillas have been holding combat training and "acquisition of logistics to ensure readiness if the peace talks will not prosper," according to the report, adding the rebels plan to intensify kidnappings and extortion to gain funds.

About 230 rebels underwent training on combat tactics for three days in March in a hinterland camp called Palestine near Butig township in Lanao del Sur province. Several guerrillas joined a monthlong training on intelligence-gathering in the same camp that month while 247 regular fighters were trained in "rigid jungle warfare" for 15 days in the southernmost province of Tawi Tawi, the report said.

About a hundred recruits were given basic military training for three months in Lanao del Sur starting in March. Other training involving an undetermined number of rebels focused on first aid and leadership, it said.

Muslim rebel negotiator Mohagher Iqbal acknowledged his group has continued to train fighters and seek weapons, which, he said, were obtained in the past from local and foreign sources, mostly gun-running syndicates.

"That's normal in a revolutionary group," Iqbal told AP. "It's not a sign of bad faith because there have always been two options while the problem remains unresolved: the peace process or war."

Iqbal, however, said that his group has primarily focused on the "peaceful track" and will reconstitute its peace panel once the government negotiating team has been set up. He denied that the rebels plan to resort to kidnappings for funds, saying they have relied mostly on civilian financial contributions.

Muslim rebel chief Al Haj Murad said he wanted the rebellion to end in his lifetime but added future talks were froth with obstacles and the guerrillas were bracing for a long battle.

"We are preparing the young generations to carry on the great task of liberating our people," Murad said in a statement posted on a rebel web site.

More than 120,000 people have died in the decades-long conflict in Mindanao, homeland of minority Muslims in the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines.

A shaky truce between government troops and the rebels has held for a year since their last major fighting in Mindanao's marshy heartland that killed hundreds and displaced as many as 750,000 people.