Conflict in Southern Philippines: Still plenty of threats to come

Conflict in Southern Philippines: Still plenty of threats to come
Police and military bomb experts inspecting the wreckage of a public bus after a bomb exploded and ripped through it, killing three people last Friday night, in the coastal village in Zamboanga, the Philippines.

MANILA - Nearly two weeks of clashes between Philippine government forces and a splinter Muslim rebel group in the southern port city of Zamboanga have glaringly exposed the security challenge that will be faced by a self-governing Islamic homeland that is in the process of being created.

A peace deal with the country's largest Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), now seems to be in the home stretch.

After four decades of insurgency, Muslim-dominated communities in the south, home to four million people, are fervently hoping for a peace dividend to enable this chronically poor but resource-rich region to fulfil its economic potential.

But the mayhem in Zamboanga - started by a faction of another Muslim rebel front - has starkly demonstrated that even with a final peace agreement with the MILF, there are still plenty of threats to lasting peace and a chance at prosperity.

"The peace process between the government and the MILF is already being challenged by other armed groups," says Professor Rommel Banlaoi, director of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research.

The conflict areas on Mindanao, the country's second largest island, are the stomping grounds of rebel groups of various stripes, extremists with terrorist agendas, and political strongmen, both Muslim and Christian, with armed private groups.

Veteran rebel leader Nur Misuari is believed to be behind the violence in Zamboanga. His rebel front launched the insurgency in the 1970s, eventually forging a peace deal with the government, which he claims was not properly implemented.

But Misuari is widely perceived to be a marginal and embittered figure, albeit with a loyal - and well-armed - following. More than 300 of his men besieged parts of Zamboanga.

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