Tens of thousands of Muslims celebrated with special prayer rallies in the southern Philippines on Friday after rebel and government leaders initialed a peace pact to end 26 years of civil war.
The agreement was initialed Friday in Jakarta, Indonesia, and is to be formally signed in Manila on Monday by President Fidel Ramos and Nur Misuari, chief of the Moro National Liberation Front.
“This is the first big step toward everlasting peace and development in Mindanao and the entire country,” said Abas Basman, mayor of Marawi city, where 45,000 people attended a five-hour rally.
After three years of negotiations, the two sides settled their disputes Thursday, finalizing plans to integrate the Muslim rebel fighters into the Philippine armed forces and the regional police force.
Rebels dropped their demand for a separate nation, accepting a deal giving more autonomy to Muslim-dominated regions in the southern Philippines, Asia’s only predominantly Roman Catholic nation.
Many areas in the south, which Filipino Muslims consider their homeland, are now dominated by Christians who migrated from the central and northern Philippines.
“We are already here together, so let us continue to live together, work hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder and lay down our firearms in the attainment of peace and development in Mindanao and the entire Philippines,” said Akmad Lao, a former board member of the province of Lanao del Sur on Mindanao, the Philippines’ large, southern island.
Misuari and government negotiator Manuel T. Yan initialed the agreement Friday in Indonesia, where three previous rounds of peace talks were held.