Militant Islam gives Jakarta the jitters: Philippines' neighbours fear export of fundamentalist violence

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FATHER Leonardo Dublan saw the grenade rolling down the aisle, as if in slow motion, before it exploded. Two thousand people were packed into Davao's San Pedro Cathedral for Mass on 26 December: they were singing a hymn before the distribution of communion.

'I couldn't speak. I just signalled to the people to duck,' said Father Dublan, who was seated at the altar. It should have been a happy Christmas in Davao, the main city on the southern Philippines island of Mindanao, 500 miles from Manila. Peace talks between the government and Muslim rebels, aimed at ending a war that has been going on since 1972 (claiming 50,000 lives), were reportedly close to a breakthrough. Hopes for peace were high in the festive season.

The grenade exploded near the top of the aisle, sending shrapnel tearing into the people seated on either side. Seconds later, two more exploded at the back of the cathedral.

People began to scream and rush for the exits. Others lay in their own blood, unable to move. The head of a figure of Jesus in a stained-glass window depicting the Last Supper was blown out. Father Dublan was unhurt, but two of his altar boys received shrapnel wounds. He drove some of the injured to the hospital: one woman died on the way. In total six people died and 130 were injured.

The army arrived quickly, but did not catch any of the attackers. The congregation blamed the Muslims. The next day three mosques in Davao were bombed in retaliation, leaving six more people injured. For a moment it looked as though one of the world's forgotten wars was doomed to continue, bringing yet more misery to the people of Mindanao.

But if the grenade throwers thought they could disrupt the peace talks, they were disappointed. The speed with which both Christian and Muslim leaders moved to calm their communities after the attack shows how determined both sides are to reach a settlement.

Father Dublan is nervous saying Mass in the cathedral four weeks after the grenade attack. 'I still have that trauma, of seeing all those people bleeding . . . but I am trying to see it as a challenge, to prove to them that a bombing will not disunite us.'

Only a small number of people in Mindanao have an interest in prolonging the conflict: business racketeers, smuggling syndicates and a small but much-feared group of Islamic fundamentalists, the Abu Sayyaf, which is supported by Libya and would like to radicalise the 5 million Filipino Muslims. Abu Sayyaf has been linked with a series of recent bombings and kidnappings in Mindanao. The army has said it is the prime suspect in the cathedral attack.

For the rest of the population, peace would open the way for economic development. Mindanao is the second largest island in the Philippines archipelago, but one of the wildest and least developed. Its rugged mountains and thick jungle conceal most of the country's iron, copper, nickel, gold and silver deposits. It also produces coffee, cocoa, pineapples, corn and coconut-oil. But there are few roads, bandits roam freely in the hills and its coasts are pirate-infested.

Arab traders brought Islam to Mindanao in the 15th century. It was well established by the time the Spanish began colonising the islands a century later. They fought wars for control of the island's natural resources, which continued until the United States took over from the Spanish in 1899.

At first the Muslims allowed themselves to be governed from Manila under the Americans. But when large numbers of Christians from other parts of the Philippines began to settle in Mindanao after the Second World War, tensions began to rise again. In 1972 war broke out between the Christian and Muslim communities, with death squads wandering the countryside massacring entire villages.

An attempt to end the slaughter was made in 1976, with the signing in Libya of the Tripoli Agreement between the Philippines government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the Muslim rebel group. But the agreement was never fully implemented.

Various half-hearted attempts to reopen negotiations were made, but it was not until the inauguration of President Fidel Ramos in 1992 that the government made peace with the Muslims in Mindanao a priority. He appointed Manuel Yan, a former military chief, as top negotiator with the MNLF. Mr Yan's instructions were to strike a deal with the MNLF, giving the Muslims a limited form of self-government so that Mindanao could be opened up for investment and business. Nur Misuari, leader of the MNLF, spent many years in exile in the Middle East but returned for the peace talks at the end of last year.

'This is the best chance for peace,' said Sharif Zain Jali, a professor of Islamic law and spokesman for the MNLF. Like Father Dublan, Zain Jali relies heavily on his faith for a sense of identity and purpose: he spent 12 years studying in Egypt and three years in Libya before returning 'to offer service' to the Muslims in Mindanao.

But he says time is running out; the threat from the Abu Sayyaf fundamentalists is real. 'If we don't solve it now, it is going to be like Palestine with the Hamas (the fundamentalist Palestinian group opposed to the PLO). These fundamentalists are young people: if you try to stop them, it will get worse. You must go with them, persuade them. I am old - 52. We use wisdom. They are young, and use violence.'

The Philippines army does not know how many men belong to Abu Sayyaf - estimates range from 120 to 1,000. Some have fought with the mujahideen in Afghanistan; many are known to have received military training in the Middle East. They are supported by Libya, Iran and Pakistan. Recently they were reported to have obtained upgraded weapons, including mortars, heavy machine-guns and grenade launchers. Their leader is known as Abdujarak Abubakar Janjalani.

Neighbouring South-east Asian countries are eager for an end to the conflict. Indonesia hosted the first round of talks between the MNLF and the Manila government in Jakarta last October. Indonesia, with a population of 180 million, is the world's largest Muslim country. It has no tradition of extremism, for the local brand of Islam has been tempered by Hindu and Buddhist influences.

Since the communist threat receded, South-east Asia has been a relatively stable region with some of the world's fastest- growing economies. The export of militant Islam to the giant in their midst is the last thing they would want.

(Photograph omitted)