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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 May, 2003, 13:41 GMT 14:41 UK
The Philippines' MILF rebels
By Orlando de Guzman
BBC, southern Philippines

Deep in a jungle hide-out in Mindanao's remote Lanao del Norte province, about 100 men armed with American-made assault rifles gather to pledge a jihad, or holy war, against the Philippines government.

MILF rebel
The MILF controls 12,000 men under arms

They are members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front [MILF], the largest Muslim rebel group in the southern Philippines, and their field commander, known by his radio codename "Congressman", explained what they were fighting for.

"What we want is to achieve freedom and independence for Mindanao's Muslims.

"We would rather die fighting for an independent homeland than continue living under this oppressive system," he said.

For years the MILF operated openly across large swathes of Mindanao.

The group set up checkpoints and even shadow governments in a number of towns and villages.

But in 2000, the MILF's main base, Camp Abu Bakar, fell to the Philippines military.

The prospect of achieving a peace agreement with the extremist MILF is almost impossible and I have given up hope of this
Emmanuel Pinol, governor of Cotobato province

The MILF has now broken up into smaller and more mobile guerrilla units, whose leaders are confined to secret locations.

In a BBC interview, Al Haj Murad, the MILF's vice chairman for military affairs, said that Islam inspired the Muslim independence, or Bangsa Moro, movement.

But he stressed that the struggle was really about political and social neglect.

"The Bangsa Moro people feel that the Manila government is not doing much for the benefit of the Moro People.

"So that even now, the Moro people still consider Manila as a foreign government, a foreign colonial government," he said.

Many of the MILF's political leaders, like Mr Murad, are former mujahideen, or holy warriors.

They volunteered to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, and had US backing to do it.

Mr Murad met with Osama Bin Laden in the 1980s.

But although the MILF has experience overseas, Mr Murad insisted that their struggle was purely a domestic one.

"The problem here in Mindanao cannot be part of a fight against global terrorism. It is only a struggle for the aspiration of the Mindanao people," he said.

The US government, however, is watching the MILF closely.

Both the US and the Philippines government suspect that members of the MILF have helped train Indonesians connected to Jema'ah Islamiah (JI), the group accused of carrying out the 2002 Bali bombing.

The MILF does not deny that it has welcomed foreign visitors to its camps in the past. But its leaders say it has nothing to do with JI or al-Qaeda.

Francis Ricciardone, the US ambassador to Manila, has not ruled out listing the MILF as an organization with links to international terrorism.

"There has been persistent reporting of foreigners, Indonesians, presumably from JI, running around in areas that are outside of the government's control, and inside the MILF's control.

"And whenever this is raised, the MILF says, oh, we have nothing to do with it. That kind of thing is really not very credible," he said.

We know that the US is really preparing the military to fight against all the revolutionary groups in Mindanao
Al Haj Murad, MILF vice chairman for military affairs

The Philippines government has taken a more hardline approach to the MILF.

Many local officials have labelled them as terrorists, and are eager for the Americans to follow suit.

Emmanuel Pinol is the governor of Cotobato province, where the MILF is active.

"I do not think it is wise for the national government to talk peace with a terrorist organization. The prospect of achieving a peace agreement with the extremist group of MILF is almost impossible and I have given up hope of this," he said.

Since mid-February, the Philippines government has broken off peace negotiations and has begun large scale assaults on MILF positions, tying up more than half its armed forces in Mindanao.

But now more than ever, the Philippines army can count on the support of the United States.

An American soldier gives a ride to a Filipino soldier during joint training exercises
Americans are keen to help the Filipinos combat terrorism

More than 1,000 US troops have arrived in the southern Philippines for another round of military exercises.

They are training Filipino troops on so-called "small unit tactics", ideal for fighting guerrilla movements.

The US has said its troops were help to get rid the Abu Sayyaf kidnapping group.

But Al Haj Murad said that the Americans were really after the MILF.

"We know that the US is really preparing the military to fight against all the revolutionary groups in Mindanao," he said.

"The real purpose is not just to fight the Abu Sayyaf, but the entire enemies of the government, and this includes the MILF," he said.

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