Muslim Rebels: No Crosses in Philippine Province

Manila -- In a southern Philippine province, a Muslim rebel group is
threatening to execute Americans unless the U.S. releases convicted 
terrorists, including the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center
bombing.

The group also says it will release 29 Filipino hostages it holds but only
if all Christian residents of the province are forbidden from displaying
crosses in public.

In another province, more than 100,000 villagers flee their homes to escape
clashes between a second Muslim rebel group and government troops that have
killed more than 300 people in the past month.

Four years after a peace treaty raised hopes of an end to the Philippines'
decades-old Muslim secessionist rebellion, peace in the country's
impoverished southern Mindanao region appears increasingly elusive.

The number of casualties and evacuees in the past month's fighting in Lanao
del Norte province rate on the scale of a major disaster, surpassing even
the 68,000 people who were forced to flee from the eruption of Mayon volcano
in February.

The clashes are the most serious since the government and the secessionist
Moro Islamic Liberation Front began talks in 1997. They serve as an
indication of the difficulties in finding a solution to the struggle for
Muslim self-rule.

Over the years, the insurgency has killed more than 120,000 people and
stunted economic growth in Mindanao, one of the country's most resource-rich
regions and home to its Muslim minority.

Hopes for peace rose in 1996, when the largest Muslim rebel group, the Moro
National Liberation Front, signed a peace treaty in which it accepted
autonomy, not independence. But the compromise was rejected by the MILF, a
breakaway faction that wants to establish an independent Islamic state.

President Joseph Estrada has rejected any kind of Muslim independence,
saying a dismemberment of the country is unacceptable.

Like previous presidents, Estrada says the rebellion can best be solved by
eradicating poverty and ending decades of discrimination and neglect of
Muslim communities by the central government. But he has also shown less
signs of sympathy toward the rebels and has repeatedly threatened to use
military force.

''I have given them a warning that if it is peace talks they want, I will
bring development to their communities,'' he said this week. ''But if they
commit terrorist acts, we will not forgive them. We will go all-out against
them.''

The recent clashes flared last month when MILF guerrillas attacked army
outposts in several Lanao del Norte towns. The soldiers pursued the rebels,
particularly a group suspected in a bus bombing that killed 40 people in
February.

The army has set Sunday as the deadline for taking a major camp in the
mountains of Munai where the rebels have sought refuge.

The fighting has killed more than 300 rebels and at least 18 soldiers, the
military says. Among the soldiers killed was a young lieutenant who was a
godson of Estrada.

As the military fought the MILF in Lanao del Norte, a smaller but more
radical Muslim rebel group, the Abu Sayyaf, seized more than 50 hostages.
The hostages seized in Basilan province on March 20 included a Catholic
priest and many schoolchildren.

The Abu Sayyaf rebels were still holding 29 hostages on Friday. They
demanded the release of terrorists jailed in the United States and a ban on
the display of crosses by Catholics in Mindanao as conditions for freeing
the captives.

On Monday, they said they will kidnap or kill Americans in the Philippines
if the United States rejects their demand for the jailed terrorists. The
terrorists include Ramzi Yousef, the World Trade Center bombing mastermind,
and Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, accused of conspiring to blow up New York City
landmarks.

The Abu Sayyaf have been blamed for numerous attacks against Christians,
including foreign missionaries. U.S. embassy officials were not immediately
available for comment on their latest threat.

Former Congressman Michael Mastura, a Muslim lawyer, said government
''appeasements'' may temporarily halt clashes in Mindanao, but unless the
Muslim desire for genuine self-rule is met, the fighting is likely to
continue.

He said the only way to prevent more bloodshed is to hold an East Timor-type
referendum to ask Muslims whether they want independence. Government
officials have rejected that proposal, saying Mindanao is different from
East Timor because it has always been part of the Philippines.

Critics say Estrada's conflicting offers of aid and threats of military
action have sowed confusion, with many military field commanders eager to
interpret the posturing literally by attacking the rebels.

Al Haj Murad, MILF vice chairman for military affairs, warned that any
attack against the main rebel stronghold Camp Abubakar, still untouched by
the military would terminate talks.

''The moment they do that, it's an official declaration of war against the
MILF and I don't think it will be possible to continue the peace talks,'' he
said.

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