Violence is likely to continue in at least four southern provinces of the Philippines that have big Muslim populations, despite a second round of peace talks between the government and secessionist rebels, according to a prominent Roman Catholic priest. Almost 75,000 people have been displaced since January following clashes between military troops and guerillas of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the biggest rebel movement in Mindanao island, 1,000 kilometers (about 620 miles) from the Philippines capital, Manila. Although the Philippines is a predominantly Christian country, several of its southern provinces are mainly Muslim. Arab traders brought Islam to Philippines in the thirteenth century.The conflict again grabbed national attention last week when at least 36 people were reported killed and 49 others wounded in a series of bombings carried out by MILF guerrillas. In the wake of the bombings, however, peace talks reopened between the rebels and the government of President Joseph Estrada. The two sides have also declared a cease-fire.However, Eliseo Mercado, a 52-year-old Roman Catholic priest who is helping to monitor the cease-fire, said that he was pessimistic about the talks. "We must prepare for the worst," said Mercado, adding that the Estrada government had "no vision" for the peace process, which he described as "directionless and ambiguous."Among the buildings hit by mortar was a radio station run by an order of priests, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in Cotabato City, Maguindanao province.Most of the 36 dead were passengers travelling in two buses.The cease-fire was unlikely to hold, according to Mercado, given a continuing build-up in military and MILF forces.Mercado has been designated chair of the independent cease-fire-monitoring committee by the Philippines Government and MILF. He was speaking at a briefing of the trustees of the non-governmental Ecumenical Commission for Displaced Families and Communities (ECDFC), which runs relief and rehabilitation programs in Mindanao.According to ECDFC records, 50,683 families (about 303,800 people) were displaced last year from 148 villages in 26 incidents. Eleven incidents from January to mid-February this year raised the number of displaced families by 12,473."This is the largest number of evacuees in 15 years," said Lourdes Go-Zurbano, ECDFC's executive director.Refugees have sought shelter in government schools, open spaces, and in town markets. Some are now living with relatives. "For many of these [people], evacuating has become a part of life," said Tsaris Medina-Salgado, of ECDFC.Relief workers are at a loss on how to deal with the evacuees. "We hardly get to put up emergency housing for the refugees, then these are bombed too," said Go-Zurbano.The MILF claims to hold 26 "territories" in the southern Philippines, 10 of which the government concedes are held by the guerillas. Reacting to the latest bombings, Philippines Defense Secretary, Orlando Mercado, said: "There are people instigating the Christian community to go after the Muslims. Let us not allow this to degenerate into a Muslim-Christian conflict."However, MILF spokesman Al Haj Murad has been quoted as saying that military and police officials were creating a war scenario in Mindanao to oust President Estrada and justify a military takeover of the country. He said that the MILF had taken into its custody three government infiltrators allegedly responsible for the recent bomb attacks.Such claims have been dismissed as "fantasy" by military authorities who have announced plans to enter MILF territory to hunt down eight MILF suspects.The National Council of Churches in the Philippines and the Catholic Bishops' Conference are organizing a joint peace committee to mediate in the conflict.Copyright © 2000 Ecumenical News International. Used with permission.

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