Muslim clan feud blamed for violence in Philippines
20 militia killed in attempt to arrest alleged assassins
A long-simmering feud between a powerful Muslim clan and Muslim separatists in the south of the country has been blamed for an unexpected eruption of violence observers say is threatening peace talks.
In the past week, at least 20 government militia have been killed in clashes with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The militia had tried to arrest two rebel commanders accused of masterminding the attempted assassination of Maguindanao provincial Governor Andal Ampatuan in the separatist stronghold of Shariff Aguak in June last year.
But rebel spokesman Eid Kabalu told local media the recent violence had broken out because authorities had disregarded two agreements between the government and the rebels. One had laid down a general ceasefire and stipulated an orderly process for reporting violations. The other was a promise by the rebel group that it would hand over any fugitive from justice who had fled into their area.
'This was blatantly violated' when the militia entered rebel territory to make an arrest, Mr Kabalu said.
Last year, the governor escaped the car bomb attack unhurt, but it killed two nephews, a cousin and four bodyguards. Mr Kabalu quickly denied that the MILF was behind the blast. 'The MILF had nothing to do with the bombing but the military is only using the issue to justify its attacks on us,' he said.
But the governor ordered militia to make arrests.
When the rebels retaliated by raiding a militia command post, militiamen called on the military for help. The army started shelling known rebel positions, prompting the rebels to retaliate.
'This is one of the biggest threats to the implementation of the peace agreement. I am anticipating a possible setback [to the imminent signing of a peace accord] if this is not resolved,' said Nash Pangadapun, secretary-general of the Muslim non-government organisation Maradeka.
Mr Pangadapun said from the area that a bloody feud had long prevailed between the separatists and the Ampatuan clan, which he describes as 'a traditional royal family'.
'It would be very hard to sustain the peace process and the [subsequent peace] agreement without the full co-operation of the Ampatuan family, whose members are close supporters of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo,' he said.
Governor Ampatuan also wields considerable influence inside the Arroyo government.
His son, Zaldy, is governor of the Muslim Mindanao Autonomous Region. Maguindanao lawmaker and nephew Simeon Datumanong is head of the House justice committee that last year rejected an impeachment motion against Mrs Arroyo.
The hostilities have underscored the fragility of the current ceasefire in the south. While the government clearly wants to sign a peace accord, it also wants to maintain the political support of the Ampatuan clan.
'Of course we want [to insulate] the peace process from whatever has been happening,' Mrs Arroyo's executive secretary, Eduardo Ermita, said at the weekend.
'But what we also want is to make those responsible account for the bombing.'