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May 26, 2017

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Philippine peace accord seen as blow to terrorists

MANILA -- Hunted by U.S.-backed Filipino troops in 2005, Abu Sayyaf chieftain Khadaffy Janjalani and other al-Qaida-linked militants sought refuge in the mountainous stronghold of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the largest Muslim rebel group in the southern Philippines.

But the rebels turned them away, afraid that harboring extremists would scuttle their peace talks with the government. The following year, Janjalani — among the most-wanted terrorist suspects in Southeast Asia — was killed by troops in another jungle area.

The rebels' rejection of Janjalani, which was reported at the time by military and police intelligence officials, shows the potential of harnessing the main Moro insurgents in fighting extremism and preventing their vast strongholds from serving as one of the last remaining refuges of al-Qaida-affiliated militants, who have been clobbered by years of crackdowns across Southeast Asia.

Philippine officials hope a preliminary peace deal the government recently clinched with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front will eventually turn the 11,000-strong insurgent group into a formidable force against the remnants of the Abu Sayyaf and other radicals, including several Indonesian and Malaysian militants believed to be taking cover in the southern Mindanao region.

"We can wage battle with the (Islamists)," Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said. "This will really isolate groups like the Abu Sayyaf."

The United States, Britain and Australia, aware of the emerging peace agreement's potential counterterrorism dividends, were among the first to praise the framework accord with the rebels announced Oct. 7 by President Benigno Aquino III. It will be formally signed in Manila on Monday.

"Foreign governments have supported the peace process partly because of counterterrorism policies," Bryony Lau of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said. They also worried about poor governance and high levels of poverty that have plagued the insurgency-affected regions, he said.

While the Moro rebel group has cut ties with foreign extremists to safeguard peace talks, "there may well still be individual ... commanders with continuing ties," Lau said, adding that "the framework agreement increases the incentives for the (Islamists) leadership to ensure that their members are not harboring such people."

Under the deal, the Moro rebel group committed to deactivate its armed guerrilla units "beyond use" when both sides have finalized an agreement on Muslim autonomy.

A final pact could be reached in three years, officials and the rebels say. One option is to integrate qualified guerrillas into a police force that would secure the new Muslim autonomous region, to be called Bangsamoro. The rest of the insurgents, they say, could return to civilian life once they lay down their firearms.

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