Aquino to visit MILF stronghold

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03:35 PM February 7th, 2013

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February 7th, 2013 03:35 PM

President Benigno Aquino III AP

MANILA, Philippines—President Benigno Aquino will next week make a historic visit to the stronghold of the country’s main Muslim rebel force in an effort to push forward peace talks, Malacañang said Thursday.

Aquino’s trip on Monday to the outskirts of the 12,000-member Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s (MILF’s) main base in the country’s south will be the first peace mission there by a president since the insurgency began in the 1970s.

“It’s not a formal meeting, but their presence will underscore the commitment and optimism that both sides have that a final resolution to the peace process will be achieved,” Aquino spokesman Ricky Carandang told Agence France-Presse.

Aquino and MILF chairman Murad Ebrahim will meet as they witness the launch of a social welfare project for mainly Muslim residents at the MILF’s main camp in Barangay (village) Darapanan in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao, he said.

The program, dubbed “Sajahatra Bangsamoro,” is part of the government’s effort to boost the peace process.

“The launch of the social programs will show concrete benefits of peace,” Carandang said.

A symbolic turnover of a PhilHealth card to MILF chairman Murad Ebrahim will be among the highlights of the activity, Cabinet Secretary Jose Rene Almendras said in a statement e-mailed to Mindanao journalists

“We are going to make members of MILF feel the presence and the services of the national government,” Almendras said in the statement.

Malacañang also said that emergency jobs would be offered to adults and scholarships given to their children.

The MILF has been fighting since the 1970s for independence in Mindanao, the southern third of the mainly Catholic Philippines that the country’s Muslim minority claim as their ancestral homeland.

An estimated 150,000 people have died in the conflict.

The MILF signed a “framework agreement” with Aquino’s government in October last year committing both sides to form a new autonomous entity on Mindanao by 2016, when the president ends his six-year term.

The MILF vowed to give up its quest for an independent homeland in exchange for significant power and wealth-sharing in a new autonomous region.

Negotiators from both sides have been meeting in neighboring Malaysia to thrash out what they described as contentious items in the plan.

Cabinet secretary Jose Almendras said Monday’s event would be held at an MILF-run school that residents say is about half a kilometer (a third of a mile) from the main gate of the rebels’ headquarters, Camp Darapanan.

“It’s very close to the MILF camp,” Almendras said.

MILF spokesman Mike Pasigan welcomed the imminent launch of the social welfare project.

“The program will further strengthen the collaboration between the government and the MILF as we build on the gains of the peace process,” he said in a statement.

In July 2000, then president Joseph Estrada arrived at the MILF’s Camp Abubakar in Maguindanao, but only to hoist the Philippine flag, which formally marked the government’s takeover of the camp following weeks of intense fighting in what was billed then as the Estrada administration’s all-out war against the then secessionist group. Edwin Fernandez Inquirer Mindanao

Originally posted: 12:44 pm | Thursday, February 7th, 2013

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