Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Philippines pact to protect schools

The Philippine government and separatists fighting for a Muslim homeland in the country's south have signed an agreement to protect schools and hospitals, and avoid civilian suffering.

The deal between the predominantly-Catholic government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) was sealed in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, signalling improving ties after years of conflict.

In the agreement signed on Tuesday, both sides committed not to target non-combatants, along with "schools, hospitals, religious premises, health and food distribution centres, or relief operations".

They also agreed not to block the flow of food aid and other relief goods, according to Philippine officials.

Displaced civilians have borne the brunt of the conflict in the Muslim-majority southern region, which has claimed at least 120,000 lives since the 1970s.

Talk to resume

Talks collapsed last year after a supreme court declared unconstitutional a preliminary accord on an expanded Muslim autonomous region.

The ruling sparked months of clashes that killed hundreds of people and forced more than half a million to flee their homes. Most of them have since returned.
The fighting in the southern Mindanao region eased in July and both sides agreed last month to resume the negotiations.

Rafael Seguis, a government negotiator, said both sides will now discuss measures to enforce the accord once formal talks resume later this year.

"It's aimed at preventing massive numbers of internally-displaced persons," said Seguis.

A spokesman for the MILF said Tuesday's accord will pave the way for
a formal resumption of Malaysian-brokered peace talks, which collapsed last
year amid renewed clashes.

"The next logical move is to resume the peace negotiations," said Eid Kabalu.

US and European officials have called for renewed talks, saying the peace process would help turn rebel strongholds into economic growth areas instead of sanctuaries for al-Qaeda-linked groups.

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