The U.S. ambassador to the Philippines met the leader of the country's largest Muslim group on Tuesday in an effort to defuse tensions over U.S. soldiers entering Muslim areas in the south.
Earlier this week, thousands of people protested against the U.S. military's plans to hold humanitarian missions in areas controlled by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) as part of annual training exercises with Philippine troops.
"The U.S. ambassador assured us the U.S. soldiers would not be involved in any combat activities," Mohaqher Iqbal, head of the MILF peace panel with the government, ssaid.
Kristie Kenney was the first U.S. ambassador to enter MILF territory when she met al haj Ibrahim Murad for about an hour in Camp Darapanan, outside Cotabato City on the southern island of Mindanao.
Muslim insurgents in camouflage uniforms and armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers guarded the bungalow where Kenney met with Murad.
The MILF was concerned U.S. troops would conduct combat training close to MILF bases, which could provoke commanders already frustrated that long-running peace talks with Manila remain deadlocked.
"We have asked the ceasefire panels of the government and the MILF to observe and monitor the activities under the exercises to prevent any problem," Iqbal said, adding that the MILF was not opposed to the annual exercises.
The Philippine constitution bars foreign troops from fighting on its territory, but since 2002 Washington has been sending elite soldiers to advise Philippine troops on attacking fighters.
The campaign against the fighters has caused civilian deaths and sometimes the evacuation of local communities.
Manila wants to sign a peace deal with the MILF but long-running talks have been deadlocked over concerns the government will shrink the territory earmarked for an ancestral homeland for around 3 million Muslims in the south.
Washington has promised to pour development aid to build schools, clinics, roads and provide skills and farm equipment to Muslim communities once a peace deal is signed.
The Philippines was a U.S. colony in the early Twentieth century and Washington started settling Christian families in the south, where Muslims were once in a majority.
The Muslim community currently accounts for around 20 percent of the population of the southern Philippines.
Güncelleme Tarihi: 20 Şubat 2008, 11:37