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Wednesday, 15 August, 2001, 14:17 GMT 15:17 UK
Philippines 'rejects' Muslim self-rule
Voters in the southern Philippines have rejected the chance of expanding Muslim self-rule, early returns suggest.

Officials said partial results showed just two out of 14 cities on the islands of Mindanao and Palawan voted to join an autonomous region.

President Gloria Arroyo campaigning
President Arroyo: Said to be disappointed at the result
This was the result analysts had expected. Official sresults are not expected until Friday.

The areas which voted have traditionally been Muslim areas but the majority of the population is now made up of Christian settlers and their descendants.

"It would seem that the 'no' votes overwhelmed the 'yes', said Alfredo Benipayo, chairman of the Commission on Elections (Comelec), speaking on local television.

The two cities which look set to join the four-province Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) are Marawi and Cotabato. Also projected to vote yes is Basilan island, where Muslim Abu Sayyaf rebels have been holding about 20 hostages for almost three months.

Together, the new area would make up about 3.2 million people, about 4% of the country's population.

But voter interest was low, with turnout estimated at about 50%. Officials put that down to fears of violence and to heavy rain and floods, in which several people were killed.

Ceasefire

Tuesday's plebiscite was the result of a peace agreement signed five years ago by the government and the country's largest Muslim rebel group, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

The 1996 agreement was intended to end more than three decades of secessionist rebellion by militant Muslims. It failed to do so mainly because it did not include another guerrilla group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Philippines soldiers attack a MILF camp last year
The government is trying to end three decades of fighting
The MILF has since begun peace talks and there is now a ceasefire.

President Gloria Arroyo campaigned for a yes vote, hoping to use it as a carrot to persuade separatists to end their fight.

But MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu said the vote proved that "autonomy is not really working as a solution" to the sectarian conflict.

"It is a blessing in disguise on the part of the MILF," he said on local television.

The government refuses to talk peace with the Abu Sayyaf, which it regards as gang carrying out kidnappings for ransom.

See also:

14 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Low turnout mars Philippines vote
07 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Philippines rebels sign ceasefire
19 Jun 01 | Asia-Pacific
Hope for Philippines' Muslim conflict
22 Jun 01 | Asia-Pacific
Philippines peace deal signed
20 Feb 01 | Asia-Pacific
Arroyo orders ceasefire with rebels
20 Jan 01 | Asia-Pacific
Challenges confronting Arroyo
05 Jan 01 | Asia-Pacific
Rebels charged over Manila bombings
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