Muslim rebels joyous, but wary, at peace prospects

Muslim rebels joyous, but wary, at peace prospects
Muslim women display a banner during a gathering in support of the signing of a final peace pact between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), in Manila on March 27, 2014.

SULTAN KUDARAT, Philippines - Joyous shouts of "Allahu akbar" echoed across the headquarters of the Philippines' biggest Muslim rebel group as a pact to end four decades of bloodshed was signed, but there were also fears war clouds had yet to pass.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) ended its rebellion on Thursday when its leaders signed a deal in Manila with the government that would create a new, autonomous Muslim homeland in the southern Philippines.

Various armed Muslim groups have been fighting since the 1970s for an independent Islamic state or autonomous rule in the south, which they regard as their ancestral home, and the conflict has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

MILF leader Murad Ebrahim said at the signing ceremony the accord was the "crowning glory" of his organisation's struggle, and his troops at their main camp 900 kilometres (550 miles) to the south voiced similar jubilation.

Hundreds of rebels, wearing camouflage uniforms and pointing assault rifles to the sky, shouted "Allahu akbar", or "God is greater", as they watched the historic moment on a television screen in a grassy field.

Senior MILF commander Usop Pasigan, 65, said he took up arms at the age of 17 and had lost three brothers in the fighting. Now he just wants to be a farmer and for his son to be able to live a normal life.

"I hope my boy will be able to finish college and not be an MILF fighter, like me," Pasigan told AFP as he stood alongside many other elderly soldiers in their military fatigues.

For Jamira Mapagkasunggot, 56, a member of the MILF women's auxiliary battalion, peace would mean being able to live without the constant fear of death.

"Most of the women have lost a father, a son or a nephew," she told AFP at Camp Darapanan, where rebels and their families live inside a sprawling compound of coconut groves and corn fields.

Fears of more conflict

But while Mapagkasunggot was optimistic about the process, she also acknowledged the many potential pitfalls that lay ahead.

"We fear some groups might not be supportive of these peace talks," she said, referring to a wide range of smaller armed groups that roam the impoverished and often lawless southern Philippines that are opposed to the peace process.

Among them is the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), which split from the MILF in 2008 because it wanted to continue pursuing independence.

The BIFF has just a few hundred militants, according to the military, but it has launched deadly attacks in the past to disrupt the peace process and has been able to withstand repeated government assaults against it.

"The war is not yet over. We are still here," BIFF spokesman Abu Missry Mama told AFP by telephone from his secret base elsewhere in the south.

Another armed group not covered by the peace accord is the Al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf, which specialises in kidnapping for ransom, while the area is plagued by private armies of corrupt politicians who may resist the new government.

The MILF, which has about 10,000 fighters, has committed to working with the government to neutralise the threat of rogue groups such as the BIFF, meaning future battles against former comrades are possible.

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