Members of the elite police special action force at Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig, south of Manila, carry one of the coffins of 44 SAF members killed in a clash with Muslim rebels. Image Credit: EPA

Manila: The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (Milf) and the Philippine government signed a document committing both sides to decommissioning of combatants and weapons, an important juncture in the peace process in the South.

A video of the peace talks reaching Manila from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, where negotiators of both sides had been meeting since Thursday, said the government and Milf peace negotiators signed a 10-page document detailing how both sides will go about decommissioning weapons as well as disarming the rebels.

“Standing by their commitment to achieve the objectives of the normalisation process, the parties finalised and signed the protocol on the implementation of the terms of reference of the Independent Decommissioning Body (IDB),” reads the Joint Statement issued by panel chairs Miriam Coronel-Ferrer and Mohagher Iqbal in Kuala Lumpur Saturday

The IDB is made up of three foreigners: Ambasador Haydar Berk of Turkey and representatives from Japan and United Kingdom, and two Filipinos. Its main task is to validate the inventory of weapons and combatants.

Under the agreed protocol, the weapons and combatant decommissioning will be carried out in a gradual, phased manner.

The Milf has waged a decades-long bloody insurgency in the Muslim southern Philippines, but an accord signed last year has raised hopes of a lasting peace.

Chief government negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer warned of dire consequences if the process were allowed to crumble.

“The other alternative is simply unthinkable,” she said.

“It will bring chaos and bring about the rise of other groups (and) even more extremists with very radical ideologies.”

The talks in Malaysia marked the first formal sit-down between the two sides since a botched Philippine police raid on the southern island of Mindanao last Sunday.

“Four batches of Milf combatants and weapons will be processed and registered in six to 12 selected assembly and processing areas,” Coronel-Ferrer said in a statement adding that ceremonial turnover of Phase 75 high-powered weapons will signal the actual start of the process.

She said they expect by the time of the ratification of the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law, which could happen anytime during the second half of the year, 30 per cent of MILF weapons and combatants would have been decommissioned. Another 35 per cent will follow under Phase 3 and the balance, under Phase 4.

Government panel member Senen Bacani said to prevent combatants from using the training that they hade been exposed to in all those years fighting in the separatist conflict, financial assistance and sustainable socioeconomic programmes will be given to the decommissioned MILF members and their communities.

“We are looking to a future where ploughshares, not weapons will be the order of the day in these communities long saddled by an unwanted war, but this requires a lot of time, patience and trust,” he said.

The weapons decommissioning, which is also an important confidence building measure, is part of a bigger accord, the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro aims to put an end to nearly three decades of conflict in Southern Philippines involving the government and the MILF.

The MILF had fought a separatist conflict for more than two decades and authorities are expecting that not all Moro fighters would readily accept the decommissioning process. It is for this reason why the government had placed all its security forces in Mindanao under full alert.

Before the signing of the weapons decommissioning covenant, police commandos conducted a raid on the lair of Malaysian terrorist Zulfikli Bin Hir alias “Marwan” and Filipino bomb maker Basit Usman in Mamasapano, Maguindanao.

MILF Chairman Murad Ebrahim admitted that Marwan was killed while Usman was able to escape.

The anti-terrorist operation, which was carried out in secrecy, cost the lives of 44 members of the police Special Action Force and reportedly, 16 others who are either civilians or members of the Milf.