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Philippine rebels urge halt to oil and gas projects
by Staff Writers
Manila (AFP) July 31, 2011

Muslim rebels in the Philippines said Sunday that oil and gas projects in southern areas they consider their homeland should be suspended and the issue incorporated into ongoing peace talks.

The statement by the 12,000-strong, Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) said they were not against economic development but warned that such energy plans could not be "unilaterally determined" by the government.

"The natural resources of the Bangsamoro homeland belongs to the Bangsamoro people," said the separatist group on their official website.

Bangsamoro is the term the rebels use to refer to the southern region of Mindanao where the country's Muslim minority is based.

The MILF statement called on the government to suspend on-shore and off-shore oil and gas exploration in the south, saying this could affect the often-troubled peace talks.

The rebels also called on Manila to halt plans to privatise power plants in the south, saying this could also affect the talks.

However chief government negotiator Marivic Leonen said in a statement that there was "no existing agreement with them which would put any development project on hold while talks are ongoing."

He said the website statement was not an official communication.

"We negotiate face-to-face. Not through public statements," Leonen said.

The largely-Christian Philippines has developed oil and gas resources off the western island of Palawan and is offering up more areas for exploration including the waters of Mindanao and its surrounding islands.

Manila and the MILF signed a truce to open the way to formal peace talks but sporadic violence has repeatedly marred the ceasefire, causing the negotiations to sometimes stall or break down completely.

Negotiations restarted in February and both sides held informal talks in Kuala Lumpur in June. The government described these talks as "productive," ahead of the next formal negotiations scheduled in August.

The MILF started its rebellion for an independent Islamic state in the mineral-rich Mindanao region in 1978 and more than 150,000 people have since been killed in the struggle.

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