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Philippines, rebels fortify truce amid stalled peace pact

MANILA, Philippines >> The Philippine government and Muslim rebels have extended the stay of international cease-fire monitors at their first meeting since their peace pact stalled amid fears of fresh fighting.

Government negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer and her rebel counterpart, Mohagher Iqbal, expressed disappointment over Philippine Congress’s failure to pass a Muslim autonomy bill that’s required under a 2014 peace accord that ended decades of fighting in the southern Philippines.

Their joint statement was issued Friday after two days of talks in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which has brokered the peace deal.

Despite the setback, the government and the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front agreed to extend by another year the mission of Malaysia-led monitors that has helped keep a cease-fire. They also kept in place a joint group that allows the Islamic guerrillas to help government troops capture terrorists and outlaws.

Both sides hoped that both measures would prevent any outbreak of violence stemming from rebel frustration with the delay in the peace process.

The House of Representatives and the Senate ended the last regular session of their term early this month without passing the bill, which aims to establish a more powerful and potentially larger autonomous region for minority Muslims in the south of the largely Roman Catholic nation.

The bill was stalled by indignation over the killing early last year of 44 police commandos in fighting that involved some of the guerrillas from the main rebel group.

A new autonomy bill would have to be presented to a new Congress under the successor to President Benigno Aquino III, who spearheaded talks with the rebels that led to the signing of the 2014 accord. His six-year term ends in June.

In the Kuala Lumpur meeting, Iqbal warned that Congress’s failure to pass the autonomy bill this month, sparked “widespread frustration on the ground by our people and members of the (Moro group).”

Iqbal said the government and the rebels should “jointly find ways and means to address this dangerous situation and avoid actions that may increase the frustrations.”

The insurgents, he said, should be assured that the 2014 peace pact would be honored and that a new autonomy bill would eventually be filed and approved by Congress under the next president.

Army troops clashed early this week with gunmen in fighting that killed a soldier in southern Maguindanao province. The gunmen, who the soldiers thought were insurgents from another group, turned out to be Moro Islamic Liberation Front guerrillas and both sides were taking steps to prevent such accidental clashes, regional military spokeswoman Capt. Joan Petinglay said.

There have been concerns that the setback in the peace deal may embolden smaller but more hardline rebel groups, which have vowed to continue fighting for a separate Muslim homeland in the south. The military has said it remains relatively peaceful in the country’s south, adding that it’s ready to deal with any contingency.

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