Mindanao, peace plan: MILF hands over (some) weapons and frees guerrillas
The Filipino Muslims rebels this morning decommissioned at least 75 assault weapons. A first group of 145 guerrillas will return to civilian life, the promise of government support. The ceremony was attended by MILF leaders and the Philippine president. A breakthrough after months of deadlock that followed the Maguindanao massacre.

Manila (AsiaNews / Agencies) - This morning, the Philippine Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebel group decommissioned its first batch of weapons, in the context of the peace plan it agreed with the government to put an end to decades of sectarian violence in the south of the country.

The ceremony - which was also attended by President Benigno Aquino - was held in Maguindanao, in Muslim Mindanao and is considered highly symbolic and a concrete response to weeks of deadlock in negotiations, following the massacre of dozens of police during an anti-terrorism raid in the region.

Bangsamoro is a region with a predominantly Muslim population and has been battered by decades of civil war between the central government and the Moro guerrillas (Muslim ethnic group and first inspiring guerrilla for independence) and the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front): the groups have called first for independence and then substantial autonomy from the executive center.

The  2012 peace agreement provided for the establishment of an autonomous region of the Philippines. Signed by MILF and Manila, it aimed to end the violence, but opposing extremist groups - such as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (Biff) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) - have tried several times to hinder it.

President Aquino and MILF leader Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, head of a movement which has at least 11 thousand members, attended the delivery of at least 75 assault weapons, including mortars and rocket launchers. The handover took place near a guerrilla stronghold in the south of the country. In the context, there was also the identification of a first group of 145 guerrillas, who have agreed to lay down their arms and return to normal life after the promise of government support.

Commenting on today's ceremony, the rebel leader Murad stressed that "it is a very personal thing for us." Looking at the faces of the 145 people who leave their weapons, he said he saw "145 stories of struggle, pain, hopelessness, and death," but at the same time "145 stories of hope and faith." For this he affirms once again that "peace is at hand" and that "all the sacrifices made so far have been remarkable."

Philippine President Aquino also defended the ceremony of the first decommissioning of weapons, pointing the finger at some MPs who want to block the passage of the law which will lead to the creation of an autonomous region. "These weapons can cause - he added - or may have caused enormous suffering." And is the signal, he concluded, that the rebel movement was ready to "turn away from armed struggle."

An estimated 120 thousand people, militiamen and civilians, have died during the years of armed struggle led by Muslim rebels in a region home to at least 5 million Filipinos. The Philippines is the only Asian country with a Catholic majority, although there are areas - like Mindanao - where there is a strong Muslim presence.