February 12, 2015 / 10:27 AM / 3 years ago

Philippine rebels promise help on militants as peace bid stalls

MANILA (Reuters) - Muslim rebels in the Philippines promised the government on Thursday they would help track down a wanted militant in a bid to save a peace process thrown into doubt by a clash in which 44 policemen were killed.

Efforts to end the decades-old insurgency by rebels from the minority Muslim community in the largely Catholic country have stalled since the Jan. 25 fighting on the southern island of Mindanao in which the 44 policemen and 18 rebels were killed.

Legislators drawing up a law to give Muslims in the area autonomy, the next step of the peace process, have suspended their work, demanding an investigation into the bloodshed.

The rebels’ chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal, told a Senate inquiry his group was willing to detain a militant bomb-maker, Abdul Basit Usman, and others hiding in their territory.

“Yes, we will help,” Iqbal said when asked if the rebels would assist in the hunt for Usman.

Police were looking for Usman and a wanted militant from Malaysia, Zulkipli bin Hir, when the violence erupted in January. Bin Hir was believed to have been killed.

The rebels said the police had not informed them of their operation to arrest the militants. The government said the violence was a mistake.

Iqbal said his group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), had already agreed to help authorities go after kidnap and extortion gangs.

“We can also cooperate in running after people who are tagged as terrorists,” he said.

But he said his group did not know where Usman, who has been accused of several bomb attacks in the Philippines, was hiding.

Usman has been wanted since 2002 and has a $1 million bounty from the U.S. State Department.

Some lawmakers said the MILF was “flirting” with al Qaeda-linked militants, providing them with sanctuary and training grounds.

Iqbal denied that.

“We have made a solemn vow to fight terrorism,” he said. “It has no place in Islam ... to tag MILF as terrorist group is unfair.”

President Benigno Aquino urged legislators not to abandon the autonomy plan, saying the entire peace process was at stake.

The 45-year insurgency has killed 120,000 people, displaced 2 million and stunted growth in the poor but resource-rich south.

Editing by Robert Birsel

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