Guide to the Philippines conflict

The southern Philippines has a long history of conflict, stretching back to the arrival of Islam in the 14th Century and later colonisation by Spain and then the United States.

BBC News Online looks at the main rebel factions now operating in the area.

Click on the links below for more on each group.

Moro National Liberation Front
Moro Islamic Liberation Front
Abu Sayyaf
New People's Army (Communist rebels)

Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF)

Followers of Islam - called Moros or Moors by the Spanish - make up a sizeable population of the region, which includes the island of Mindanao, Sulu, Basilan, Tawi-Tawi and Palawan.

The Moro National Liberation Front first appeared in the early 1970s, fighting for an independent Moro nation.

The group signed a peace agreement with the Manila Government in 1976, but this failed to stick.

Another agreement, signed in 1996, gave predominantly Muslim areas a degree of self-rule, setting up the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

The MNLF chairman and founder of the group, Nur Misuari, was installed as the region's governor.

But his rule ended in violence when he led a failed uprising in November 2001, and he is now in jail.

Another MNLF leader, the central government's favourite Parouk Hussin, took over as ARMM governor in 2002.

The MNLF has become weaker over the years, with many factions splintering from the main group.

Parouk Hussin retains a loyal support base, mostly on Jolo, the largest of the Sulu islands.

But Nur Misuari still has a small band of followers, who remain actively opposed to the current situation.

The ARMM is composed of the mainland provinces of Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur, and the island provinces of Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and Basilan.

The region still has only limited autonomy, mainly over economic issues.

The central government in Manila retains control of defence, financial and foreign policies.

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Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front is a more militant rebel group, which split from the MNLF in 1977, but it is now making moves towards reaching a settlement with the Manila government.

The MILF has a long-term aim of creating a separate Islamic state in the southern Philippines, but analysts say the group may well settle for a certain degree of Muslim autonomy.

The MILF puts more emphasis on its Islamic roots than the MNLF. Many of its senior figures are clerics.

Based in central Mindanao, the MILF has broad popular support in rural areas, where the lack of economic development has encouraged dissent.

In 2000, the army under then-President Joseph Estrada launched a crackdown on the 12,500-strong group.

The following January Mr Estrada was deposed amid popular protests, and his successor, Gloria Arroyo, revived talks.

The MILF signed a peace deal with Manila in 2001, but sporadic violence continued.

The situation worsened in February 2003, when the Philippine military accused the MILF of harbouring members of the Pentagon kidnap gang, and launched a new offensive.

The small but militant Pentagon gang, which both the US and the Philippines class as a terrorist group, had been accused of kidnapping foreigners.

The MILF denied providing sanctuary to Pentagon members.

It also denied being behind a bomb blast at Davao City airport in March 2003 which killed 21 people.

The police blamed the MILF for the blast, and filed multiple murder charges against the group's founder and then leader, Salamat Hashim, and several other senior MILF figures.

The government also suggested a possible link between the MILF and the East Asia-wide militant group Jemaah Islamiah, which has been blamed for the Bali bomb attack in October 2002.

The MILF again denied the link, and maintained that its policy was to confine attacks to military targets.

There have been signs of a breakthrough in relations between Manila and the MILF.

Salamat Hashim died of a heart attack in July 2003, after issuing a statement renouncing terrorism and underlining the MILF's commitment to achieving a peace settlement.

He was replaced as leader by MILF military chief Murad Ebrahim.

A ceasefire with the government has been in force since just before Mr Salamat's death.

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Abu Sayyaf

The Abu Sayyaf is the smallest and most radical of the Islamic separatist groups in the southern Philippines.

But it is probably the best-known, because of a series of kidnappings of Western nationals and Filipinos, for which it has received several large ransom payments.

In June 2002, US-trained Philippine commandos tried to rescue three hostages being held on Basilan island. Two of the hostages - one an American citizen - were killed in the resulting shootout.

The Abu Sayyaf's stated goal is an independent Islamic state in Mindanao and the Sulu islands, but the government views the group as little more than criminals. It refuses to negotiate with the group.

The Abu Sayyaf split from the MNLF in 1991 under the leadership of Abdurajik Abubakar Janjalani, who was killed in a clash with Philippine police in December 1998.

His younger brother, Khadafi Janjalani, is now thought to be the group's nominal leader.

The Abu Sayyaf, which means "Sword of God" in Arabic, is thought to number fewer than 500 core fighters.

Nationwide support for the group is limited, but analysts say many locals in its stronghold areas of Jolo and Basilan tolerate the rebels and even work for them, attracted by the prospect of receiving lucrative ransom payments.

Both the MNLF and MILF have condemned Abu Sayyaf's activities.

The US has included the Abu Sayyaf in its list of "terrorist" organisations, and says the group has links with Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda network.

US troops have been deployed to help their Philippine counterparts stamp out the group, but the future extent of the American role remains unclear.

So far the US troops are restricted to a training and advisory position, as the Philippine constitution bans foreign troops from taking part in actual combat.

But the issue is a subject of ongoing debate between Manila and Washington.

Sporadic fighting continues between Abu Sayyaf gunmen and Philippine troops, and the group has claimed responsibility for a series of bomb attacks.

In December 2003 Philippine forces seized a senior member of Abu Sayyaf. Galib Andang was captured after a battle on Jolo island and faces charges which could result in the death penalty.

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New People's Army (NPA)

The New People's Army is the military wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), and has been in existence for more than 30 years.

The group, based on the island of Mindanao, has an estimated 10,000 members according to a presidential adviser on the peace process.

Peace talks between the CPP and the Philippine Government stalled in June 2001, after the NPA admitted killing a Filipino congressman.

The CPP/NPA was added to Washington's list of foreign "terrorist" organisations in August 2002.

Shortly afterwards, at a request from the Americans, the Dutch Government cancelled benefit payments to group members living in the Netherlands.

Many of the NPA's senior figures, including its founder Jose Maria Sison, live in self-imposed exile in the Netherlands, and direct operations from there.

Unlike the Americans, the Philippine Government does not class the Maoist group as a terrorism organisation.

In February 2004, the peace process was revived with representatives of the NPA meeting government officials in the Norwegian capital Oslo.

The two sides agreed a series of measures to move towards a formal peace deal. They included setting up a joint commission to examine human rights abuses on both sides, and working together for the removal of the NPA from the US and EU's list of terror organisations.

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30/03/2004

Bron : BBC World

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