Philippine Muslim rebels confirm death of their leader
MILF deputies vow to press ahead with peace talks as they announce successor
The Philippines' largest rebel group finally confirmed the death of its leader Hashim Salamat and announced his replacement yesterday, vowing to press ahead with peace talks.
The death of the 61-year-old founder of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) on July 13 was kept secret by his deputies for weeks in order to prevent demoralisation and grief within the ranks of the 12,000-strong separatist movement, sources said.
They said it was too early to say whether the MILF would break into factions along ethnic lines following Salamat's death. Salamat had kept them together by stressing Islam as their common denominator. With him gone, they said the MILF had lost a religious leader of international prominence.
The MILF vice-chairman for political affairs, Ghazali Jaafar, and spokesman Eid Kabalu said their group would continue to pursue peace talks with the government.
'The death of brother Salamat will not stop the MILF from pursuing a peaceful, political and comprehensive agreement with the Philippine government,' Mr Jaafar said.
'We are still determined to achieve lasting peace and our commitment to resume peace talks has not changed,' Mr Kabalu added.
They both confirmed that the MILF vice-chairman for military affairs, Murad Ebrahim, had been chosen by the front's central committee to take Salamat's place as committee chairman. They said Mr Murad was next in seniority after Salamat.
But other sources said it was because Mr Murad was the most acceptable among the central committee members, since he was a member of the Iranun ethnic tribe to which Salamat and core MILF members belonged.
It is rumoured that Salamat himself had anointed Mr Murad as his successor before he died.
Salamat's health was frail due to asthma and hypertension. These conditions were aggravated by his losing his dream Islamic community, Camp Abubakar, to government troops in 2000. He then moved his residence and headquarters to the Buliok complex in Pikit, North Cotabato, until the military attacked and seized it in February.
Since then, Salamat had been on the run, with an arrest warrant issued against him in March. The former government librarian died in the remote town of Butig, Lanao del Sur, 25 years after envisioning a separate homeland for his people where Islam would be the law and the way of life.
In a rare show of sympathy, government and military figures mourned the passing of their long-time enemy.
Armed forces chief of staff General Narciso Abaya said he was saddened by his death, which he described as 'a great loss' to the MILF, whose forces might weaken as a result. He said the death would not affect the peace process.
President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo issued a statement, saying: 'It is unfortunate for the peace process ... Nevertheless, this does not affect the basic policy of the government to pursue a just, comprehensive and durable solution to the conflict in Mindanao.'
Whatever the outcome of the peace talks, if settlement is to be reached, Mr Murad will have to forge a deal which convinces Salamat's followers that he did not die in vain.