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07MANILA407 2007-02-05 08:22:00 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Manila
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1. (SBU) Elements of the Moro National Liberation Front
under Commander Habier Malik on February 4 released Brigadier
General Benjamin Dolorfino (commander of the Armed Forces'
National Capital Region command and the highest ranking
Muslim army officer), Undersecretary for the Peace Process
General Ramon Santos, and more than a dozen others after two
days at the MNLF's Camp Bitan-ag on Jolo Island. BG
Dolorfino insisted to the media that he and the others were
"not taken hostage, but we were hosted." Malik separately
denied having taken anyone hostage, claiming that the real
reason for the long stay was a detailed discussion about
peace in the Sulu Archipelago. Both sides confirmed that
preparatory tripartite talks among the Organization of
Islamic Conference, the MNLF, and the Philippine government
will now take place in Jeddah March 17-18 to review
implementation of the 1996 peace accord with the MNLF.

2. (C) Undersecretary for the Peace Process Nabil Tan and
Undersecretary for Local and Interior Government Marius
Corpus separately denied to Pol/C on February 5 that the
Philippine government had agreed to release MNLF founder Nur
Misuari, in detention near Manila since leading an abortive
rebellion in 2001. They insisted that the only condition for
the release of BG Dolorfino was setting firm new dates for
the tripartite talks, which were originally intended to take
place in early February.

3. (C) Comment: The action by Nur Misuari supporters in
the MNLF -- however much both sides tried to avoid the
"hostage" terminology -- has already provoked negative media
commentary, highlighting that the MNLF remains an armed group
despite the 1996 peace accord. It also raised memories of
the deadly conflict with the MNLF's Misuari Breakaway Group
on Jolo in February 2005. The Philippine government had
quietly been considering releasing Nur Misuari in any event,
and permitted him recently to fly for a day to Jolo to
register as a voter, fueling speculation that he intends to
run for governor in the May 2007 elections. This
embarrassing episode should now make it more difficult for
the government to take such a conciliatory step, although it
may well let him take part in tripartite talks, if not during
the upcoming preparatory round, then in a subsequent meeting.

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