KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — The Philippines' largest Muslim rebel group won't give up its armed struggle until a final peace settlement with the government to end one of Asia's longest-running insurgencies is reached, its leader said Wednesday.
The government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front signed a preliminary peace agreement in October in a major breakthrough to end more than 40 years of violence that has killed tens of thousands of people and held back progress in the Philippines' resource-rich but poverty-wracked south.
The accord grants minority Muslims in the south broad autonomy, but negotiations still face hurdles over the extent of power, revenue and wealth sharing by the two sides.
Rebel leader Al Haj Murad Ebrahim said that negotiations on power and wealth sharing were "almost 95 percent done," but that discussions on other issues, including security and the creation of a regional police force, were only 60 percent complete.
He said peace would remain a "very precarious matter" until a final peace accord is implemented.
"Every minute of delay in finishing (the agreement) poses a threat to peace," he told a regional conference in Malaysia. "If there is no solution, then the armed struggle will continue. We are trying to avoid any delays."
The agreement says a 15-member Transition Commission will later draft a law creating a new Muslim-administered region, to be called Bangasamoro, in the predominantly Roman Catholic country. It says the 11,000-strong rebel army will be deactivated gradually, but does not specify a timetable.
Teresita Quintos Deles, the Philippines' presidential adviser on the peace process, said negotiations were expected to resume in Malaysia in the next two months.
She said talks were delayed because of difficult issues such as taxation, budgetary allocation and revenue sharing from natural resources.
"It is taking more time, but we are confident that the (agreement) will be able to pass the crucial tests of implementation," she told the conference, adding that the delay was to "ensure a more doable and durable peace" in the region.
The agreement says the new Muslim-administered region will replace an existing autonomous territory consisting of five of the country's poorest and most violent provinces.
That territory was created by a 1996 peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, but was considered a failure because it did not end the conflict, the rebels did not disarm and it did not improve the lives of Muslims. Corruption, political violence and crimes such as kidnappings and extortion persisted, and the current Moro group continued to fight for self-rule.
Another preliminary accord in 2008 was struck down as unconstitutional because the Supreme Court ruled it would create a separate state.
Western governments have long worried about the presence of small numbers of al-Qaida-linked militants from the Middle East and Southeast Asia seeking combat training and collaboration with the Filipino insurgents. One of those extremist groups, the Abu Sayyaf, is not part of any negotiations, but the hope is that the peace agreement will isolate its militants and deny them sanctuary and logistical support they had previously received from rebel commanders.