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Tuesday, 27 November, 2001, 12:39 GMT
A never ending conflict
Abu Sayyaf rebels in Sulu province
The Abu Sayyaf - a separatist group still fighting
By the BBC's John McLean in Manila and Jonathan Fryer in London

The military assault in the southern Philippines on followers of Muslim rebel leader Nur Misuari is the latest episode in a conflict that has been going on for about 30 years.


[Nur Misuari's] return to rebellion is only an irritant to the government but it does illustrate the difficulty of bringing lasting peace to the south

Mr Misuari has been a central figure in this conflict.

It was Mr Misuari's Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) that began the Muslim separatist rebellion in this mainly Christian country in the 1970s.

He signed a peace agreement in 1976 - the Tripoli agreement - which failed to stick, and another 20 years later.

And, until he was arrested in neighbouring Malaysia on Saturday, he was behind the uprising on the island of Jolo in which more than 100 peole died.

All told, three decades of fighting in the southern Philippines has cost tens of thousands of lives and the killing goes on.

Peace agreement

After many attempts at a negotiated settlement, Mr Misuari and the government finally signed a peace agreement in 1996.

Nur Misuari
Nur Misuari: Rebel turned peacemaker - turned rebel once more
The agreement gave predominantly Muslim areas a degree of autonomy.

But Eric Gutierrez, of the independent Philippines Institute for Popular Democracy, said it was not enough for some MNLF members.

"It was basically a concession on the part of the MNLF, because they scaled down their demands from independence to autonomy," Mr Gutierrez told the BBC.

The more militant Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which had split from the MNLF, carried on fighting.

This year the government revived peace talks with the MILF and they concluded a ceasefire agreement.

Kidnap group

That left only the Abu Sayyaf still fighting. The Abu Sayyaf is another MNLF splinter group which has turned to kidnapping for ransom.

According to US intelligence reports, it probably also had links with several of the people who were involved in the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington.


Nur Misuari is now being viewed by the people of Sulu as an escapee - starting trouble and then abandoning his people

MNLF Secretary General Musliman Sema
The belief that some Muslim separatist groups in the Philippines are connected with international extremist groups like Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda has only strengthened President Gloria Arroyo's determination to stamp them out.

In Washington last week, she told President George W Bush she was confident that the Philippines security forces had the willpower and the means to do that.

"Whether or not they are connected to al-Qaeda, they are terrorists," she said. "They terrorise two islands in the south-western corner of our country.

"But now it is not a lonely fight any more, because there is an international coalition against terrorism."

Return to arms

Mr Misuari, as governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), was a disappointment to both the government and the MNLF, so the MNLF removed him from its leadership.

Mr Misuari reacted by going back to war.

The MNLF is sticking to its peace agreement with the government and Mr Misuari commands the loyalty of only a small faction.

"After the trouble in Sulu that he started, and his finally leaving the island, Nur Misuari is now being viewed by the people of Sulu as an escapee - starting trouble and then abandoning his people," MNLF Secretary General Musliman Sema told the BBC.

Mr Misuari's return to rebellion is only an irritant to the government but it does illustrate the difficulty of bringing lasting peace to the south.

See also:

27 Nov 01 | Asia-Pacific
Philippines hostages in peril
27 Nov 01 | Asia-Pacific
In pictures: Philippines hostage drama
24 Nov 01 | Asia-Pacific
Philippines rebel leader arrested
22 Nov 01 | Asia-Pacific
Army hunts for Philippines governor
21 Nov 01 | Asia-Pacific
In pictures: Philippines uprising
26 Nov 01 | Asia-Pacific
Voters shun Philippines poll
21 Nov 01 | Asia-Pacific
'Over 100' dead in Philippines uprising
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