Philippines ends stay of foreign peacekeepers in the south

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Foreign peacekeepers 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 the rebels said Friday.

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

It remains to be seen whether new President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. will authorize the return of the peacekeepers. Decades-long Muslim and communist insurgencies are among major problems he inherited after taking office on June 30 following a landslide victory.

Deployed in 2004, the IMT initially consisted of armed peacekeeping forces from Malaysia, Brunei and Libya to help monitor the enforcement of a cease-fire agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the largest Muslim rebel group in the south, which signed a Malaysian-brokered peace deal with the government in 2014.

The European Union, Japan, Norway and Indonesia later sent either armed troops or civilian experts to join the IMT, which also helped monitor humanitarian issues and efforts to rehabilitate war-battered communities. As fighting subsided considerably through the years, the 60-member IMT was gradually reduced. 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 intends to extend the mandate of the IMT, two officials told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue publicly.

With “practically zero skirmishes” between government forces and Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels in recent years, “the exercise of the roles and responsibilities of the IMT has been substantially diminished,” the government panel told Hamdan in a letter, a copy of which was seen by the AP.

In the past, deadly clashes wrought extensive damage to entire towns in the south and displaced tens of thousands of people.

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

“All the privileges and immunities granted to members of the IMT, including authority to stay based on currently valid visas and authority to bear firearms shall likewise cease,” the Department of Foreign Affairs told the countries in separate diplomatic notes, a copy of which was seen by the AP.

Philippine officials thanked Malaysia, Brunei, the EU and former member countries in the IMT for their help in restoring peace and fostering economic development in the south, home to the country’s Muslim minority in the largely Roman Catholic nation.

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

More than 12,000 Muslim rebels have been “decommissioned” and laid down about 2,000 firearms and other weapons so far. A new group of 14,000 rebels was undergoing the process when Duterte’s term ended on June 30 and Marcos Jr. took office. The rest have not been 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 jointly decide on the peacekeepers’ presence and their terms of stay.

Philippine officials have expressed openness to inviting the peacekeepers back but the government and the rebels have yet to finalize the details of any such agreement, Iqbal said. He expressed optimism that the issue would be resolved given the success the peace talks have reaped so far.

“The parties must subscribe to the agreements to be able to succeed,” Iqbal said.

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