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'Pocket wars' and peace in Philippines

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In the parlance of conflict-weary Mindanao, where guns are plentiful and tempers fray easily, what erupted here recently was a "pocket war."

It began on Jan. 25, when armed raiders backed by insurgents from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) attacked Christian-owned farms during rice harvesting. Filipino troops were sent in, and around 6,000 villagers were displaced and six killed in the fighting that followed. Intermittent attacks between the army, Christian vigilantes, and Muslim fighters have continued since.

International monitors downplayed the fighting. "This is a minor hiccup," says Col. Mustapha Omar, the Malaysian commander of a team monitoring the cease-fire.

But in Mindanao, hiccups have a history of developing into something more. An exchange of artillery near the village last week left 19 Muslim fighters and a Filipino soldier dead. The MILF threatened to abandon its 10-year-old cease-fire and Philippines President Gloria Arroyo responded by ordering the army to show more restraint.

Though MILF leader Al Haj Murad said over the weekend that a breakthrough could be near, analysts warn that if steps aren't taken to address the grievances of local Muslims, the goals of both the Philippines and the US in the region could be compromised.

The US has supported the peace talks because it believes Moro anger fuels terrorist recruitment. But the MILF, which has wholeheartedly engaged in the talks and mellowed considerably from the years when it called for the creation of an Islamic state, needs to show results to its constituents or lose some of them to more radical groups, analysts say. The MILF has been quietly supporting US and Filipino offensives against smaller and more militant Muslim groups, but that could change.

"Without a peace agreement that's implemented in an effective way, you could see a deterioration in pockets of Mindanao that can have a ripple effect on the country and the region," says Astrid Tuminez, a researcher for the US Institute for Peace and an expert on the MILF.

The fertile farmland of Midsayap is part of what the MILF considers the "ancestral homeland" of the Bangsamoro, or Moro people, as the region's Muslims were labeled by Spanish colonizers. They have a distinct culture from that of the dominant north.

MILF leaders are pressing for recognition of this homeland and a formula for self-rule.

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