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Give Muslims self-rule or 'count body bags': Philippines' Aquino

MANILA: Philippine President Benigno Aquino called on lawmakers Friday to pass a bill endorsing a pact aimed at ending a decades-long Muslim separatist rebellion, warning them they would otherwise start counting “body bags”.

Aquino had wanted the bill, which would give autonomy to the majority Catholic nation’s Muslim minority in the south, passed this month.

But Congress suspended debates on the proposed law in the face of public outrage over the killings of 44 police commandoes by Muslim guerrillas in a botched anti-terror raid in January.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which signed a peace deal a year ago Friday, had said its members fired in self-defence at the commandoes, who passed through a rebel camp while going after Islamic militants.

“This is the crossroads we face: we take pains to forge peace today, or we count body bags tomorrow,” Aquino said in a nationwide television address.

“Perhaps it is easy for you to push for all-out war,” he said, hitting out at critics who have condemned the peace deal with the MILF.

“But if the conflict grows, the number of Filipinos shooting at other Filipinos will grow, and it would not be out of the question that a friend or loved one be one of the people who will end up inside a body bag.”

The rebellion for a separate state or self-rule has claimed nearly 120,000 lives and cost billions of dollars in economic losses, according to government estimates.

Under a peace deal signed with the MILF, the 10,000-member group pledged to disarm while the Philippine government vowed to pass an autonomy law in Muslim areas of the south.

“The Bangsamoro basic law is one of the most important proposed bills of our administration. It answers the two most pressing problems of our countrymen: poverty and violence,” Aquino said Friday.

He warned it would be difficult to restart peace talks if the current process failed and the MILF leadership lost its influence among its members to more radical elements.

Aquino is required by the constitution to stand down in mid-2016 after serving a single six-year term.

The January police raid sought to capture or kill two men on the US government’s list of “most wanted terrorists” who were living among Muslim rebels in southern Philippine farming communities.

One of the men, Malaysian national Zulkifli bin Hir who had a $5-million bounty on his head, was reported killed.

But the other, Filipino Abdul Basit Usman, escaped as rebels surrounded and killed the police commandoes. -AFP

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