SULTAN KUDARAT, Philippines - The Philippines' largest rebel group retired nearly 150 guerrillas and handed over 75 firearms for decommissioning Tuesday to encourage parliament to pass a proposed law giving minority Muslims self-rule.
President Benigno Aquino visited the headquarters of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to witness the weapons handover, the first concrete action by the organisation to abandon a decades-old rebellion that has claimed more than 100,000 lives.
Aquino and senior MILF leaders both said the largely symbolic activity was intended to spur parliament to pass a delayed proposed law giving Muslims self-rule in the Catholic nation's south under the terms of a 2014 peace treaty.
"This is one of the most difficult decisions we have made so far in more than 40 years of struggle," chief MILF peace negotiator Mohaqher Iqbal said in a speech.
"We want to show the world that the MILF will always comply with its obligations set forth in the signed agreement," Iqbal added.
Aquino, who ends his six-year term in a year's time, wants the Muslim self-rule bill to be passed soon, fearing that his successor may not pursue the peace initiative.
"Let us show them that we are worthy of their trust," Aquino said in his speech.
Parliament failed to pass the bill before it went into recess last week amid a public outcry over the killing of 44 police commandos by MILF rebels and other armed groups on the southern island of Mindanao in January.
The police officers were ambushed after they passed through MILF-influenced areas following a raid that killed Zulkifli bin Hir, a Malaysian militant and one of the most-wanted "terrorists" sought by the United States.
Work on the Muslim self-rule bill is expected to continue when parliament resumes on July 27, but congressional leaders have said it is unlikely to be passed before October.
The 75 MILF firearms, including 24 weapons such as mortars and machine guns, were handed over to an independent decommissioning body headed by Turkey and also comprising members from Norway and Brunei.
The haul is believed by Filipino police to comprise just a tiny fraction of the arsenal of the 10,000-member MILF.
Under the peace deal, 30 percent of MILF combatants and weapons will be decommissioned once parliament passes the Muslim self-rule law.
The weapons will be stored in a secure area controlled by the decommissioning body.
Another 35 percent will follow after the law is ratified in a regional plebiscite, while the remainder will be handed over once the regional government is established and its leaders elected in May next year.
The 145 guerrillas retired on Tuesday will return to civilian life and receive assistance from the government, peace negotiators said.