The largest Muslim rebel group in the Philippines handed over dozens of assault weapons Tuesday in a symbolic gesture to reinforce a peace pact stalled by a public outcry over the recent killings of dozens of anti-terror police commandos in a fierce battle with insurgents.
President Benigno Aquino III and Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, the leader of the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front, witnessed the handover of 75 assault weapons, including mortar and rocket launchers, by the guerrillas near a southern rebel stronghold, along with the identification of a first batch of 145 guerrillas, who agreed to return to normal life with promises of government support.
The autonomy deal, signed by the government and the rebels last year after yearslong talks brokered by Malaysia, was expected to be one of the major legacies of Aquino, a reformist leader whose six-year term ends next year. But the involvement of the Moro rebels in fierce clashes that killed 44 police commandos, who hunted and killed a top Southeast Asian terror suspect on Jan. 25, ignited public criticisms of the Moro insurgent group and the peace agreement.
The passage of a law in the Philippine congress that would authorize the creation of a more powerful Muslim autonomous region in the country\’s south has been delayed. It is uncertain if the guerrillas would accept a watered-down version of the autonomy bill drafted by government and rebel representatives.
The uncertainty has led to fears that impatient guerrillas may return to violence. A few hundred rebels broke off from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front about five years ago when the main insurgent group pursued peace talks with Aquino\’s government.
Murad said while Tuesday\’s event is about statistics for some people — 145 guerrillas and 75 firearms — "this is something deeply personal to us."
"As I look at the faces of each of our 145 brothers here this morning, I see 145 stories of struggle, of pain, of hopelessness and even of death, yet I also see 145 stories of hope and faith that indeed peace is near and that all the sacrifices have been worth it," he said.
Aquino defended the arms turnover against criticisms by those who he said wanted the peace process stalled.
"We are not talking of just one or a couple or a dozen firearms. These are high-powered firearms, modern and have not aged. These arms can deal and have dealt extreme suffering," Aquino said.
The guns will be turned over to an independent decommissioning body and will be stored in a mutually designated depot in the south.