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Philippines Races Time to Forge Peace as Mindanao Fighting Rages

Sept. 22 (Bloomberg) -- The Philippines faces time limits to complete a peace pact this year with the country’s largest Muslim rebel group, as clashes in Mindanao between government troops and other separatists continued for a second week.

“We are working on a tight timeframe,” Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, the head of the government’s peace panel, said in a video press conference from Kuala Lumpur yesterday. While many issues on power-sharing and disarming the Moro Islamic Liberation Front were resolved after 10 days of talks that ended Sept. 20, agreement is yet to be reached on those two matters before a final deal can be sealed, she said.

Talks will resume soon, and amid the violence in Mindanao both parties are “acutely aware” of the importance of ensuring that this peace agreement serves the interest of all Muslims, Coronel-Ferrer said. A wealth-sharing deal was signed in July.

Four decades of insurgency in Mindanao has killed as many as 200,000 and stifled development of the resource-rich island. Ending one of Southeast Asia’s most entrenched conflicts could help bring investors to Mindanao and unlock mineral deposits worth an estimated $300 billion.

Mindanao accounted for 14.4 percent of Philippine output in 2012, according to government data. The Zamboanga peninsula, which contributed 2.1 percent to the economy last year, expanded 12.4 percent, the fastest among the nation’s 17 regions, the data show.

Charges Filed

Muslims account for 5 percent of the Philippines’ 103 million-strong population, according to estimates by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

At least 107 people have been killed and more than 126,000 displaced since Sept. 9, when fighting broke out in Zamboanga City between government forces and the Moro National Liberation Front. The dead include 11 civilians, 14 military and police and 82 MNLF fighters, according to the latest figures from the government.

Chief Inspector Ariel Huesca of the Zamboanga police said yesterday 170 hostages held by rebels have been rescued. Police also reported the capture or surrender of 144 MNLF.

Charges of rebellion were filed against at least 29 MNLF fighters, including 25 in custody and the alleged commander, Habier Malik, who remains at large, Chief Inspector Elizabeth Jasmin, spokeswoman at the police’s investigation group, said in a mobile-phone message yesterday.

Authorities will ensure all stakeholders including the MNLF are consulted when legislation creating Bangsamoro, an expanded autonomous region, is crafted, Presidential Peace Adviser Teresita Deles said on Sept. 11.

‘Work Cut Out’

“The work is cut out for the government and the MILF to come up with an inclusive and effective agreement that is acceptable to the Moro people,” Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform in Manila, said by phone. “The realistic assumption is there will always be those who will oppose but hopefully it’s not on a scale that will create a rebel group that can mount a major rebellion.”

President Benigno Aquino has spent the past week in Zamboanga to direct operations after deploying his interior and defense secretaries to the region on Sept. 9. He ordered the military to investigate why the MNLF seem not to be running out of ammunition, the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported yesterday.

Before the Sept. 9 fighting started, the peace panel expected to forge an agreement soon, according to its statement on Aug. 25.

“Our goal is to put in place the new institution by 2016,” Ferrer said yesterday, referring to Bangsamoro. “We know we have to finish this as soon as possible. We are taking measures that will help us fast-track the process as we continue the negotiations.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Joel Guinto in Manila at jguinto1@bloomberg.net; Clarissa Batino in Manila at cbatino@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stanley James at sjames8@bloomberg.net

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