MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippine government will grant amnesty to Muslim guerrillas who are facing or have been convicted on rebellion-related charges under a newly signed peace pact, which calls for the 11,000-strong rebel force to be deactivated, an official said Sunday.
Presidential peace adviser Teresita Deles said the amnesty, which still need congressional approval, would only cover fighters of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and exclude guerrillas who broke off from the group and continue to endanger peace.
According to the pact that was signed by Philippine government and rebel negotiators in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Saturday, the granting of the amnesty and pardon was aimed at facilitating "the healing of the wounds of conflict and the return to normal life."
The conclusion of the Malaysian-brokered talks has been the most significant progress made over 13 years of negotiations to tame a tenacious insurgency that has left more than 120,000 people dead and derailed development in Muslim-populated southern regions that are among the most destitute in the Philippines.
Under the peace deal, the Moro insurgents agreed to end violence in exchange for broader autonomy. An existing five-province Muslim autonomous region is to be replaced by a more powerful, better-funded and potentially larger region to be called Bangsamoro.
Despite the milestone, both the government and the rebels acknowledged that violence would not end overnight in a region that has long grappled with a volatile mix of crushing poverty, huge numbers of illegal firearms, clan wars and weak law enforcement.
Like other amnesty programs, only rebellion-related crimes could be absolved. Others like rape would not be covered, Deles said.
"It's not a blanket amnesty," Deles told The Associated Press, adding that the details still have to be threshed out.
Rebel spokesman Von Al Haq said dozens of guerrillas were currently detained on rebellion-related charges and that his group would draw up a list of fighters eligible to benefit from the program.
Under the "normalization" pact, the government and the insurgents also agreed to establish a joint task force to turn six main guerrilla camps in the southern Philippines into "peaceful and productive communities" although no timetable was mentioned.
"There will be no more camps, they will become peaceful, unarmed communities," Deles said. "Camp Abubakar will no longer be known as such," she said, referring to one of the Muslim rebels' largest strongholds.
An independent Decommissioning Body to be led by foreign experts would oversee the deactivation of rebel forces and collection of their weapons. The huge military presence in the autonomous region would be scaled down and a joint assessment would be made for an orderly redeployment of troops and "avoid a security vacuum," according to the pact.
The government also pledged to disband private armies, mostly of politicians and warlords, and encourage the Moro rebels to give up their own weapons — a decades-long concern past presidents have failed to fully address.
"They need to be assured that they will be secure even if they are decommissioned and their weapons put beyond use," Deles said.
Saturday's pact was the final component of a peace agreement, which is expected to be signed soon by both sides in the Philippine capital, Manila.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague congratulated the Philippines and said his country would continue to back the difficult peace process.
"As we know from our own experience, many of the most difficult challenges will emerge as the parties work toward implementing the agreement," Hague said. "But the courage and leadership shown by the parties gives great hope that these can be overcome."