Philippines says talks with Muslim rebel group to continue

Peace talks with the Philippines’ largest Muslim separatist group will continue despite the militants admitting ambushing government soldiers last week, an official said Tuesday.

Chief peace negotiator Avelino Razon told state radio that the government believed the leadership of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) remained "sincere" despite being involved in the clashes.

The MILF has admitted ambushing soldiers sent to reinforce troops locked in heavy fighting with Al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf militants, after troops overran a guerrilla training camp on the southern island of Basilan last Wednesday.

The attack left 23 soldiers dead, most of them killed in the MILF ambush, while at least 20 MILF and Abu Sayyaf militants were killed, the military said.

"Our view is that we need to give the peace talks a chance so we can end 40 years of conflict," Razon said, adding that the military has been asked to thoroughly investigate the incident.

The military has said it informed MILF leaders that troops were going to attack an Abu Sayyaf base, to avoid confusion. However, officials said that the MILF turned on the troops and joined in the fighting instead.

While the MILF admitted their forces ambushed soldiers, they said they were provoked by government fire.

"What happened in Basilan was an isolated incident. We still believe that the MILF leadership remains sincere and is still pushing forward with the formal talks," Razon said.

The MILF has been engaged in a periodic separatist campaign in the southern Philippines since 1978. Five years ago it signed a ceasefire with the government to negotiate for peace.

The peace talks collapsed in August 2008 after MILF commanders attacked Christian communities in the south. But both sides have recently taken steps to resume the talks expected anytime this month.

The smaller, more brutal Abu Sayyaf group, which is blamed for the country’s worst militant attacks, is not included in the peace talks.

The MILF has denied any formal links with the Abu Sayyaf, but intelligence officials say the group is frequently given sanctuary in MILF camps in the south.