Philippines, Muslim Rebels to Continue Peace Talks

MANILA, Philippines -- The Philippine government and Muslim rebels agreed Thursday to continue peace talks despite recent clashes that killed 19 soldiers in a southern province, the chief government negotiator said.

As the two sides work toward ending decades of rebellion for Muslim self-rule, the rebels reaffirmed a commitment under a previous agreement to help the government fight kidnap gangs and other criminal groups, Marvic Leonen said in a statement after an informal meeting in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur.

The talks had been called into question after Moro Islamic Liberation Front clashed on Oct. 18 with Filipino forces sent to Basilan province to arrest Moro commander Dan Laksaw Asnawi for his alleged involvement in a 2007 attack killing 14 marines. Ten of the marines killed in that attack were later found beheaded.

President Benigno Aquino III rejected recent calls, however, for an all-out offensive against the rebels, and refused to scrap the Malaysia-brokered peace talks.

The joint cease-fire committee investigation later cleared Asnawi of the beheadings, according to rebel spokesman Von Al Haq, and the mutilations were reportedly carried out instead by four militants from the Abu Sayyaf group who strayed later into the battle scene and found the bodies.

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The rebel and government negotiators on Thursday also agreed to have Malaysian-led international monitors and the joint cease-fire committee investigate the Oct. 18 clash.

Despite the rebel's claim of Asnawi's being cleared, the military said Wednesday it would continue to hunt for the guerrilla commander, who escaped from Basilan provincial jail in 2009.

Col. Dickson Hermoso, head of the military office monitoring the peace talks, said the 11,000-strong Moro front would not be targeted itself, only rebels "who provide sanctuary or coddle these lawless elements."

Moro front vice chairman Ghazali Jaafar welcomed the international investigation into the Oct. 18 clash.

"That means it will be an impartial investigation. That's what we have been calling for all the while," he told The Associated Press.

Leonen described Thursday's meeting as "a candid exchange where both sides cleared the air about pressing issues."

"We agreed to move forward on the substantive agenda and meet again very soon," he said, without elaborating.

Jaafar said the rebels were aiming to establish an autonomous government to end the insurgency, which has killed more than 120,000 and stunted the growth of the resource-rich but largely impoverished southern Mindanao region.

"The political solution of the Bangsamoro problem is no other than the establishment of a government of the Bangsamoro people ... under the power of the government of the Philippines," he said, using the name the rebels refer to Muslim Filipinos.