Accused Philippine rebel kidnapper to remain hidden: MILF

| November 5, 2009

COTABATO, Philippines — Philippine Muslim rebel leaders on Thursday refused a government demand to force one of their members accused of kidnapping an Irish priest to come out and personally deny the allegation.

Aloy Al Asree, a commander of more than 3,000 men in the troubled southern Philippines, would not want to turn himself into a target for authorities, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) said.

"It?s complicated. He might be arrested if he shows up at the (government) crisis management committee," MILF chief peace negotiator Mohagher Iqbal said, referring to local officials seeking contact with the kidnappers.

Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno said this week that Al Asree, commander of a MILF unit called the 113th base command, was involved in the abduction of Father Michael Sinnott, 79, from the southern city of Pagadian on October 11.

Although the kidnappers have released a video in which Sinnott spoke, they have not revealed their identities.

The kidnapping has strained efforts to revive stalled peace talks, with President Gloria Arroyo's spokeswoman earlier saying it could jeopardise a resumption of the talks unless the MILF handed over those involved.

The government's negotiator on Thursday attempted to smooth over the controversy, saying the kidnapping was an isolated incident.

"This could be the work of misguided scallywags. The MILF leadership has already denounced this dastardly act," Foreign Undersecretary Rafael Seguis said in a statement in Manila.

"I am confident the formal resumption of the peace talks will proceed as we had earlier agreed."

Arroyo's chief adviser on the peace process, Anabelle Abaya, meanwhile welcomed an offer by the MILF to help in the hunt.

"(It is) a positive measure towards building confidence," she said.

The MILF has denied Al Asree or any other rebel leader was involved in the kidnapping, and warned that such accusations could hurt peace negotiations.

Sinnott has a history of heart problems and his religious order, the Society of St. Columbans, has repeatedly expressed fears about the impact the ordeal would have on his health.

Government and church leaders, however, have rejected a two-million dollar ransom demand.

The 12,000-strong MILF has been waging a rebellion for an independent Islamic state in the southern third of this mainly Catholic country since 1978. It signed a ceasefire with Manila in 2003, but the peace talks were suspended last year when MILF commanders launched deadly raids across Mindanao.

These were carried out after the Supreme Court rejected a proposed deal that would have given the MILF control over what they claimed were ancestral lands. Over 300 people died in the clashes, which also forced over half-a-million to flee their homes late last year.

 

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