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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Manila Signs Peace Pact With Rebels

MANILA -- Supporters and opponents of a peace settlement with Moslem rebels demonstrated Monday as negotiators signed a final agreement ending a 26-year rebellion that cost more than 120,000 lives.

The government has agreed in the pact to provide increased autonomy to Moslem areas in the southern Philippines, while the rebels dropped their demand for a separate Moslem state.

Outside Manila's Malacanang presidential palace, several thousand Christian and Moslem supporters of the agreement released yellow and blue balloons and honked car horns to celebrate as the pact was signed.

But in southern Iligan City, the city government flew flags at half-mast and about 4,000 city employees and others attended a rally against the agreement.

"Here in Iligan there is only worry and cries of sadness, not of joy," said city councilor Lawrence Cruz. The agreement, he said, "is driving a wedge between the Christians and Moslems."

And in Zamboanga City, a new militant Christian group declared war against supporters of the agreement. The group, the Mindanao Christian Unified Command, is being blamed for three small explosions last Friday.

Many Christians living in the southern Philippines fear the pact gives too much power to the rebels.

But at Monday's signing ceremony inside the palace, both sides praised the agreement. "This could mean the end of scourge and darkness for our people," said rebel chief Nur Misuari.

Misuari, a quiet-spoken, bearded former university professor, wore a dark suit and fez to the ceremony instead of his former battle fatigues.

More than 1,500 government and rebel officials -- some in colorful traditional dress -- and representatives of Moslem nations watched Misuari and chief government negotiator Manuel Yan sign the agreement, finalized just last week.

The pact is a major achievement for President Fidel Ramos, who has sought since taking office four years ago to settle three separate insurgencies -- by Moslem rebels, Communists and right-wing soldiers -- that have destabilized the nation and impeded economic growth.

Although two smaller Moslem rebel groups still reject the peace pact, the acceptance by Misuari's Moro National Liberation Front, or MNLF means Ramos' administration has now largely settled two of the three rebellions.

Military officers who led a series of coup attempts against Ramos' predecessor, Corazon Aquino, have been granted amnesty, but talks with divided Communist rebels still have not succeeded.

Ramos warned that the government must now focus on eliminating poverty and injustice in the south, one of the Philippines' poorest yet resource-rich regions.

"The root causes of conflict will not go away just because we have signed this agreement," he said. "Never again must Filipinos be so desperate as to take up arms against one another."

Under the agreement, the MNLF will control a new peace council that will oversee economic development projects in 14 impoverished southern provinces for three years.

Negotiators believe this will give the rebels a chance to demonstrate their leadership.

Then in 1999, a plebiscite will be held to determine which of the provinces wish to join a new autonomous government.

The rebels consider the 14 provinces their traditional Moslem homeland, but generations of Christian settlers have come to dominate the region. Tens of thousands of Christians have demonstrated in recent weeks against the pact.

Both Japan and the United States welcomed the agreement, with Japan saying it now "intends to favorably consider how it can best provide maximum support" for development in the southern Philippines.

The government says at least 120,000 people died in the fighting, while the MNLF says more than 200,000 were killed.