MANILA (Reuters) - The largest Muslim guerrilla group in the Philippines warned on Tuesday that hardliners would stand to gain if legislators failed to pass a law granting Muslims autonomy as part of a peace deal under threat because of recent fighting.
Forty-four police commandos, 17 rebels and four civilians were killed in a Jan. 25 clash in the south of the largely Christian country that has cast doubt over talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) after lawmakers suspended work on a law creating an autonomous Muslim area.
“People will think that we failed them, the radicals can gain legitimacy on their political line. We don’t want it to happen,” chief MILF negotiator Mohagher Iqbal told reporters.
“It is normal in any organization to have minority view and we don’t want this group to prevail if we cannot get this law,” he said, urging lawmakers to resume work on the autonomy law.
Malaysia has brokered peace talks between the government and the MILF to end a 45-year conflict that has killed 120,000 people, displaced 2 million and stunted growth in one of the poor and resource-rich regions in the Philippines.
The bungled police operation has also become President Benigno Aquino’s biggest political crisis with opinion polls showing steep drop in popularity ratings over his handling of the affair.
Aquino has also urged Congress to pass the autonomy legislation.
Iqbal said the rebels were committed to the peace process and would remain so even after Aquino’s term of office ends in June 2016.
The government had said the January clash was a mistake that occurred as police hunted for two wanted Islamist militants. The rebels said they acted in self-defense when police entered their zone.
The Malaysian-led monitors found that both the police and rebels were at fault for violating the ceasefire.
Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Robert Birsel