The Philippines ended the stay of foreign peacekeepers in the south

MANILA, Philippines – Foreign peacekeepers who are credited with helping ease years of bloody fighting between government forces and Muslim rebels have left the southern Philippines after officials decided to end their presence, but talks are underway. to allow their possible return, officials and rebels said Friday.

Members of the International Monitoring Team, or IMT, led by Malaysia, flew out to the southern region of Mindanao on June 30 after their authority to remain as ceasefire monitors, which needs to be renewed annually, was not extended by the outgoing administration of President Rodrigo Duterte.

It remains to be seen whether the new President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. will allow. the return of peacekeepers. Decades of Muslim and communist uprisings were among the main problems he inherited after sitting down on June 30 following a landslide victory.

Launched in 2004, the IMT was initially comprised of armed peace forces from Malaysia, Brunei and Libya to help monitor the implementation of a ceasefire agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the largest Muslim rebel group in the south, which the government signed a Malaysian-brokered peace deal in 2014.

The European Union, Japan, Norway and Indonesia have sent either armed troops or civilian experts to join the IMT, which also helped monitor humanitarian issues and efforts to rehabilitate war-torn communities. . As the fighting subsided over the years, the 60-member IMT gradually dwindled. The last contingent of more than 20 peacekeepers left the south two weeks ago.

In March, a Philippine government peace panel told the head of the foreign peacekeeping force, Maj. Gen. Datuk Hamdan Ismail of Malaysia, that it no longer seeks to further extend the IMT mandate, the two officials told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue publicly.

With “almost zero skirmish” between government forces and Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels in recent years, “the exercise of IMT’s duties and responsibilities has been significantly reduced,” the government panel told Hamdan in a letter, a copy of it was seen by the AP.

In the past, deadly clashes have caused extensive damage throughout the town in the south and displaced thousands of people.

The Manila Department of Foreign Affairs notified the countries involved in the peacekeeping force in May about the government’s decision to “no longer renew the IMT mandate” after June 30 “in view of significant accomplishments in peace. process. ” It cited the implementation of peace agreements, including the establishment of a new Muslim autonomous region, now overseen by former Muslim rebel commanders under the transition period.

“All privileges and immunities granted to IMT members, including the authority to remain based on currently valid visas and the authority to carry firearms will also cease,” the Department of Foreign Affairs told the countries separately. diplomatic notes, a copy of which was seen by the AP.

Philippine officials thanked Malaysia, Brunei, the EU and former IMT member countries for their assistance in restoring peace and economic development in the south, which is home to the country’s Muslim minority in the predominantly Roman Catholic country.

The rebels, however, objected to the government panel’s decision and said that based on the agreements signed, IMT forces should remain to safeguard the ceasefire agreement in the southern Philippines until “full decommissioning”. – a euphemism for disarming and returning to normal life – to all 40,000 fighters of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, two officials said.

More than 12,000 Muslim rebels have been “decommissioned” and have laid down about 2,000 guns and other weapons so far. A new group of 14,000 rebels is undergoing the process when Duterte’s term ends on June 30 and Marcos Jr. takes office. The rest were not disarmed.

“The agreement is for the IMT contingent to stay here until the last MILF combatant is decommissioned or until the exit agreement is signed,” Rebel peace panel chairman Mohagher Iqbal said, adding that the government and the rebels should together decide on the presence of peacekeepers and their terms of stay.

Philippine officials have expressed openness in inviting peacekeepers to return but the government and the rebels have not yet finalized the details of any such agreement, Iqbal said. He expressed optimism that the issue would be resolved due to the success reaped by the peace talks so far.

“The parties must subscribe to the agreements in order to succeed,” Iqbal said.