Philippine president sees final pact with MILF soon



Arab News

Published — Monday 11 February 2013

Last update 13 February 2013 6:44 pm

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MANILA: Philippine President Benigno Aquino III Monday on Monday said a final peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) may be signed next month.
“I think we’re very, very close to agreements on all points,” he told a news conference at the MILF stronghold in the country’s south, where he traveled to launch educational, health and livelihood projects jointly with the guerrillas aimed at improving life in the area and bolstering the prospects of a peace deal.
Aquino said he did not want to give deadlines to the consensual process but said they believe the comprehensive agreement can be signed “earlier than the end of March.”
“We have just three years and four months left. We have to speed up everything we are doing now to make this (peace) permanent,” he said.
Aquino said this would ensure that future peaceful relations would not be dependent on who is in office.
“We are near the fruits of our labor. This is not the time for our hearts to grow faint,” he told MILF leaders, Muslim residents and foreign diplomats in a sprawling community housing many of the best-armed MILF fighters.
Hundreds of government security forces and MILF fighters guarded the ceremony in Sultan Kudarat town in Maguindanao province, which has a recent history of major battles between troops and insurgents, who were at times suspected to have been aided by Al-Qaeda-linked extremists.
Under the new project, Aquino’s government is pledging to provide health insurance, assistance in finding jobs and funding for schools for rebel families.
Aquino handed out health insurance cards and scholarships to Muslims and their families. The social security benefits were part of a government program called Sajahatra Bangsamoro that aims to provide basic services to members of the MILF. Health insurance cards were given to 11,000 fighters and scholarships to 500 students.
"Our goal (is) to accelerate the transition of MILF communities steeped in armed struggle to a productive citizenry that buys into the national agenda," Aquino was quoted by the Deutsche Presse Agency (DPA) as saying.
MILF Chairman Murad Ebrahim said he welcomed 'this sincere gesture of the government,' but added 'we caution all not to lose sight of the imperative and the challenges of the work ahead,' specifically ongoing discussions on the creation of an autonomous Muslim region.
The 11,000-strong Muslim group had been waging a rebellion for self-rule in the south. It signed a preliminary peace agreement with the government on Oct. 15 in a major breakthrough toward ending one of Asia’s longest-running insurgencies.
The accord grants minority Muslims in the south broad autonomy in exchange for ending more than 40 years of violence that has killed tens of thousands of people and held back progress in the resource-rich but poverty-wracked region. It creates a roadmap for a final peace settlement.
Both sides have ongoing negotiations on the extent of power, revenues and wealth to be granted to the new southern Muslim autonomous region to be called Bangsamoro. The rebels have also agreed to dismantle their armed guerrilla forces, possibly with the help of international experts, under an arrangement both sides are to negotiate.
A comprehensive pact based on those details must be signed as soon as possible to ensure durable peace in Mindanao, Murad said.
"Only when we achieve this can we truly be assured of real development not only in this region but also for this country," he said.

With input from wire services

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