A market bombing in the southern Philippines Sunday killed at least 15 and injured dozens.
COTABATO CITY, PHILIPPINES
A deadly market bombing in the southern Philippines has thrown a spotlight on government peace talks with Muslim insurgents accused of aiding regional terrorist groups.
Initial suspicion for the blast, which killed at least 15 people and injured dozens more in the mostly Christian port city of General Santos, has fallen on the militant Islamic group Abu Sayyaf, whose operatives have been tracked to the southern island of Mindanao in recent weeks.
The attack comes as security forces tighten a manhunt for Abu Sayyaf leader Khadaffy Janjalani, who is wanted on kidnapping and murder charges. The US government has offered a $5 million bounty for his capture.
Philippine Army chief Lieut. Gen. Efren Abu told reporters last week that Mr. Janjalani was hiding in central Mindanao in territory controlled by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), an insurgency group with ties to illegal terrorist networks.
General Abu, far from accusing the MILF of harboring outlaws, said its leaders were now helping the government to track Janjalani and his followers.
For peace negotiators trying to coax the MILF into abandoning its arms for a political role, his comment points up the high-stakes game being played in a key front in Southeast Asia's battle against terrorism.
Analysts say striking a peace deal could be the best way of flushing out Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), two Al Qaeda-linked groups whose agendas go beyond the MILF's goal of local Muslim self-rule. Both have exploited the decades-old conflict in Mindanao for their own ends.
But the government must first be convinced that MILF leaders, who signed a cease-fire last July, aren't using terror attacks as leverage, or, perhaps more alarmingly, can't discipline radicals in their ranks.
"The reality is the Philippine government has to build on the peace process to drive the JI elements out," says Jesus Dureza, adviser to President Gloria Arroyo on Mindanao.
Officials and residents in former battle zones here say the 17-month cease-fire has already reaped a modest dividend in the form of aid and development, backed by the US and other foreign donors. Much more is promised for the region, among the poorest in the Philippines, if peace talks can bear fruit.
In the lush green hills above Parang, villagers that used to live under the MILF's authority are being wooed with government projects. A new road connects communities that were previously only reached on horseback.