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COTABATO: The chief Philippine government negotiator said Sunday he was "seriously concerned" after a feared rebel commander broke from the main Islamic separatist group ahead of peace talks.

Ameril Umbrakato's split from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) could compromise talks between the government and the rebels, warned negotiator Marivic Leonen, casting a pall over hopes for an end to one of the world's longest-running insurgencies.

"The government views the reported resignation of a known commander of the MILF with serious concern and looks forward to a clarification from the MILF (peace) panel," Leonen said in a statement

Leonen, who is due to meet his MILF counterparts from Wednesday to reopen the stalled talks, said that the government wanted a settlement with the 12,000-strong MILF "at the soonest possible time".

But on Saturday, a top official of the MILF confirmed that the group had a potentially serious rebellion in its ranks after Umbrakato quit the rebel organisation seven months ago, taking at least a thousand fighters with him.

Umbrakato was one of the MILF commanders who broke the group's ceasefire with the government in 2008 to launch deadly attacks on Christian communities in the troubled Philippine south, leaving nearly 400 people dead and 70,000 displaced.

The attacks caused the peace process to come to a halt. It is only being revived now after the election in May last year of a new president, Benigno Aquino, who has revamped the country's peace negotiating team.

In a statement posted on the MILF website on Sunday, the group's chairman Murad Ebrahim said the main rebel organisation was still trying to convince Umbrakato not to leave.

"We are making headway to convince him to fully return to the fold of the MILF. I believe this problem can still be resolved expeditiously and soon," the website quoted Murad as saying.

The MILF's top leadership had sent its three most senior "ulama" or religious leaders to talk with Umbrakato and they had reported some "good developments," the website said without elaborating.

More than 150,000 people have died since the early 1970s due to the Muslim rebellion, according to the government.

Recently, videos of Umbrakato have circulated in which he says that he is forming a new armed group to continue the struggle for an independent Islamic state in the southern Philippines.

Umbrakato is the latest in a series of MILF field commanders to ignore orders from the rebel leadership.

In recent weeks, another militant MILF commander has been leading his men in deadly clashes with a different Muslim armed group over a land dispute in the south, which have killed abotu 13 people.

The southern Philippine region of Mindanao is largely Christian but it has a sizable Muslim minority who consider the area their ancestral home.


Copyright AFP (Agence France-Presse), 2011

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