Gov't, Muslim rebels clear final peace deal hurdle
KUALA LUMPUR - (3rd UPDATE) The Philippine government and Muslim rebels said Saturday they had cleared the last hurdle in long-running peace negotiations, paving the way to end a deadly decades-old insurgency in the country's south.
President Benigno Aquino hopes to secure a final peace settlement before leaving office in mid-2016 to end the rebellion by Muslim groups, which has left around 150,000 people dead.
Negotiators of both sides said Saturday marked the conclusion of years of peace talks ahead of the signing of a formal deal to seal their work.
Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal said the deal was expected to be signed "very soon" to pave the way for peace.
"From A to Z, it has been full of challenges. But with the cooperation and determination of all parties... I think no obstacles will stand in the way, God willing," he told reporters.
Aquino's spokesman Edwin Lacierda told AFP that he hoped the deal could be signed as early as next week.
Negotiators started a fresh round of talks Wednesday on the outskirts of Malaysia's capital Kuala Lumpur to tackle a "normalisation" deal detailing how the rebels will hand over their weapons and the creation of a security force to police what would be a self-ruled Muslim area.
The deal is the last of four power-sharing accords that must be agreed between the government and the MILF, before a final peace deal can be signed.
Chief Philippine government negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer said the conclusion of the latest round Saturday marked the "end of a process, which is the formal negotiations".
"The peace process... is aimed to really bring about a good foundation for sustainable peace and development in Mindanao (island in southern Philippines) and in that sense we consider this a very important development," Ferrer told reporters.
She added "the bigger challenge of implementation" lay ahead with the target "to substantially complete everything by the end of this administration in 2016".
Neither Ferrer nor Iqbal gave details of how the MILF would decommission its 12,000-strong armed forces, with Ferrer saying it would be a "gradual and phased process". An independent commission will be set up to work out the details, they said.
"For peace, real peace in Mindanao, we have to decommission our forces," Iqbal said. "There is no element of surrender... The issue of normalisation is the most sensitive and emotional."
Aquino warned last month that disarming the group would be a "heavy and contentious" issue.
The United States Saturday congratulated the Philippine government and the MILF for concluding negotiations towards a peace deal.
"This agreement offers the promise of peace, security, and economic prosperity now and for future generations in Mindanao," said US Secretary of State John Kerry in a statement.
He also commended the Malaysian government, as the facilitator of the talks, "for its constructive role in helping resolve a decades-long conflict".
Apart from the MILF, many other armed groups operate in the south, including former rebels who have resorted to banditry and terrorism.
The insurgency, which began in the 1970s, has left parts of the southern Philippines mired in deep poverty and instability.
A previous peace agreement in 2008 was struck down by the Philippines' Supreme Court, which rejected it as unconstitutional, leading to renewed fighting.
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