- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 26, 2004

MANILA — The Philippines plans to drop murder charges against 185 members of the country’s largest Muslim separatist group, removing a major barrier to resuming peace talks, officials said yesterday.

The justice secretary has ordered prosecutors to drop charges against the guerrillas of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), who are accused of participating in two bomb attacks last year that killed 38 persons in the southern Philippines.

The MILF, which has carried on a decades-old insurrection for Muslim self-rule in the south, has demanded that the charges be dropped as a condition for resuming peace talks. Talks have been held on and off since 1997.

The MILF’s current chief, Al Ha Mural, Vice Chairman Ghazali Jaafar and spokesman Eid Kabalu — as well as the group’s late leader, Salamat Hashim — are among those who were charged and will be cleared.

Mr. Kabalu called the move “a positive development” and said peace talks could resume if the charges are dropped.

“With this, if it’s proven to be true, we see no more hindrances to the resumption of formal peace talks,” he said.

Teresita Deles, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s adviser on the peace process, said the cases against the 185 guerrillas were weak and the government thought they could be withdrawn to foster peace talks.

However, charges against five other guerrillas would not be withdrawn because of strong evidence against them, he said.

The order to rescind the charges is expected to take effect in a few days, he said.

Mr. Kabalu said the government also has mostly met the rebels’ demand to withdraw troops from a MILF stronghold that the military captured in a major offensive last year.

The MILF has denied involvement in last year’s bombings, one of which killed 22 persons, including an American missionary, outside the international airport in the southern city of Davao in March. The other killed 16 persons near the city’s wharf the following month.

There are an estimated 11,500 MILF guerrillas possessing 8,700 firearms, the military said. The MILF has been accused of having links with the Southeast Asian terror group Jemaah Islamiyah. But the rebels deny it.

The group contends it has renounced terrorism and pledged to help the government hunt for foreign extremists in the country’s volatile south.

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