MANILA: Philippine security forces arrested a key member of the country's main Muslim rebel group, officials said Monday, potentially undermining a peace deal aimed at ending a decades-long insurgency that has left tens of thousands dead.
Wahid Tundok -- described by the military as a "high value target" and a senior member of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) -- was arrested Sunday as he passed through a joint military and police roadblock escorted by armed bodyguards near the southern city of Cotabato, police said.
The authorities said Tundok had outstanding warrants of arrest for various criminal offences, including arson, although members of the MILF's peace panel said he had been actively helping out in the peace process and was supposed to be covered by an immunity guarantee from the government.
"He was arrested along with his armed followers while onboard a pickup truck at the police-military check point," said regional police chief Superintendent Jovit Culaway.
Culaway said high-powered firearms were confiscated from Tundok, described as a Muslim cleric who heads one of the 12,000-strong MILF's "base commands" on the volatile southern island of Mindanao.
He said Tundok was "a high value target" being kept at a military base in the south.
MILF political affairs chief Ghazali Jaafar said they had protested against the arrest, and were demanding Tundok's immediate release through a joint ceasefire mechanism.
"The MILF Central Committee is doing everything to resolve the problem," he said.
President Benigno Aquino's top adviser on the peace talks, Teresita Deles, lamented that the arrest came at a "sensitive stage" and just weeks ahead of a likely final peace agreement.
"This (the release of Tundok) is already under discussion with our security forces," Deles said, adding that both sides were working on a "mutually acceptable resolution" of the issue.
A source close to the talks told AFP Tundok and his men had assisted the military in its hunt for members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a breakaway faction responsible for a series of attacks in a bid to sabotage the peace deal.
The joint operations were carried out as part of confidence-building measures as both sides prepared to sign a final peace deal.
The arrest, according to the source, could complicate the deal.
The government wrapped up talks with the MILF in January and Deles said a final peace accord could be signed as early as mid-March.
The plan calls for the creation of an expanded autonomous area, the sharing of mineral wealth between the state and the rebels, as well as the eventual disarming of the rebel fighters in hopes of ending a rebellion that has left some 150,000 dead since the 1970s.