Philippines: Muslim rebels agree to help de-mine, ready for talks
|Publisher||Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN)|
|Publication Date||21 May 2010|
|Cite as||Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), Philippines: Muslim rebels agree to help de-mine, ready for talks, 21 May 2010, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4bfb7889c.html [accessed 23 August 2014]|
MANILA, 21 May 2010 (IRIN) - Muslim separatists blamed for years of conflict and displacement on the southern island of Mindanao have agreed to help the government rid the area of unexploded ordnance and landmines.
The move is part of an effort to protect thousands of civilians returning to their ruined homes and villages, rebel and government spokesmen confirmed to IRIN.
At the same time, the agreement - signed by both parties earlier this month during closed meetings in Kuala Lumpur - is an important confidence-building mechanism as the 12,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) prepares to sit down with the government of president-elect Benigno Aquino when he assumes office in June, chief rebel negotiator Mohagher Iqbal said.
"We are expressing our willingness to sit down and negotiate with Aquino. We are open to negotiating with him and believe he will pursue the peace agenda," Iqbal said from an MILF rebel base in southern Maguindanao Province.
The de-mining agreement was meant to allow some 3,000 families displaced from eight Maguindanao towns to return home without fear of accidentally setting off the explosives, he said.
MILF troops have been sent to scour these areas and retrieve the landmines and unexploded ordnance with the help of experts from the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action
Thousands of rounds of mortars and artillery were exchanged between the military and MILF positions in Maguindanao when severe fighting erupted in late 2008. The rebels launched coordinated attacks across many towns and villages after the Supreme Court overturned a proposed land deal that would have given them control over vast tracts of what they claim as ancestral land.
More than 700,000 people were evacuated at the height of the fighting, which also destroyed entire villages and left nearly 400 dead on both sides.
A ceasefire took effect in July last year, and both sides have since launched back-door negotiations to revive formal talks, although the MILF had said it would wait for a successor to outgoing President Gloria Arroyo before signing any deal.
The National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC) and the Social Welfare Department said about 100,000 people were still displaced, with many staying with relatives or in evacuation centres.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) estimates there are about 60,000 still in various shelters.
In recent months, scores of civilians have been wounded or killed by accidental explosions of ordnance and mines, including one incident in which a farmer hit a mortar with his machete as he was clearing a grassy area in the town of Datu Unsay.
Civilians have also reported finding mortars and landmines near mosques and areas where IDPs were staying, police and military report.
"We are signatories to the Geneva conventions against landmines and this is part of our commitment," Iqbal said.
Aquino, who has not yet been declared victor but has an unassailable margin over his nearest rival in the 10 May polls, vowed in a speech before the vote to get rid of private armies and warlords used by his predecessor in pursuing the Muslim rebels, which has complicated the insurgency.
Moreover, he promised that all negotiations would be carried out in a transparent manner, to avoid situations similar to those that led to the Supreme Court decision in 2008.
"The absence of a clear national policy and coherent strategy for peace negotiations led to confusion and false expectations across the table," Aquino, who has spent the past 11 years in Congress, said.
"The negotiations were done secretly and without involving the views of key stakeholders whose futures depend on the promise of Mindanao."
"The next administration will have to pick up the pieces and resume the quest for peace with vigour and clarity of purpose," he said, adding that within three months of his government, he would come up with a fresh National Security Policy that would guide internal security policies, including talks with insurgents.