KUALA LUMPUR - Philippine government and Muslim rebel negotiators issued a joint plea Saturday for the country to stick to a historic peace accord that is now in peril after a deadly clash spurred calls for retribution against the guerrillas.
Both sides told a press briefing in Kuala Lumpur that two days of talks in Malaysia on disarming the rebels had made progress, and they vowed not to waver in implementing an accord on the voluntary surrender of weapons.
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has waged a decades-long bloody insurgency in the Muslim southern Philippines, but an accord signed last year has raised hopes of a lasting peace.
Chief government negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer warned of dire consequences if the process were allowed to crumble.
"The other alternative is simply unthinkable," she said.
"It will bring chaos and bring about the rise of other groups (and) even more extremists with very radical ideologies."
The talks in Malaysia marked the first formal sit-down between the two sides since a botched Philippine police raid on the southern island of Mindanao last Sunday.
The operation targeted a wanted terrorism suspect but resulted in 44 police commandos being killed in clashes with the MILF and a smaller rebel faction.
The rebels' chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal also said the MILF was fully committed to the peace process.
The MILF signed a protocol agreement on Thursday for disarmament, and both parties said they would go ahead with the symbolic handover next month of 75 high-powered guerrilla firearms.
They also vowed to strengthen existing ceasefire mechanisms to avoid future clashes.
But President Benigno Aquino, who must convince Congress to approve the deal, is under mounting pressure to strike back at the rebels.
"In the next few days we know there will be challenges before us," Coronel-Ferrer said.
She said the government would engage with Philippine lawmakers to keep the process on track.
"That is our message. Please stay the course with us," she said.
The MILF and various other Muslim rebels have battled since the 1970s for independence or autonomy.
The peace agreement signed last year would create a southern autonomous region for the Philippines' Muslim minority with locally elected leaders by mid-2016.
The conflict has condemned millions of people across Mindanao to brutal poverty and created fertile conditions for Islamic extremism, with the Al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf group and other hardline militants making remote areas their strongholds.