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 killings earlier this year of dozens of police commandos in a fierce battle with fighters.
President Benigno Aquino III and Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, the leader of the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), 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 years-long 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 armed 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 MILF about five years ago when the main armed 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, saying some legislators were trying to stop or stall passage of the law creating the autonomous region.
"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.
He said the arms turnover showed the rebel group's "readiness to turn their backs to armed struggle."
"Let's reciprocate the trust that the rebels gave to us," Aquino said in calling for the passage of a law governing a future autonomous region for Muslim minorities in Mindanao. "They are extending their hand of peace."
The guns, which comprise the first batch of weapons to be laid down, will be turned over to an independent decommissioning body. As part of the peace deal, MILF rebels agreed last year to surrender a total of 15,000 weapons and dissolve their guerilla force.
The United States and several Asian and European countries have backed the peace deal as a way to prevent impoverished rebel strongholds from turning into breeding grounds of armed fighters.
At least four smaller and more hardline armed groups, including the Al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf, are not involved in the peace talks and have continued sporadic attacks, including kidnappings in the south and neighboring Malaysia.
More than 120,000 combatants and civilians have died in the Muslim rebellion that has stalled progress in many resource-rich areas of the predominantly Roman Catholic nation's south, home to about 5 million Muslim Filipinos.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press