ASIA

Philippine peace deal and president face scrutiny after deadly raid

Deadly raid in Mindanao threatens to derail Philippine peace deal with Muslim rebels

The vast Philippine island of Mindanao was synonymous with Muslim separatist violence for decades. That was before the government and a large rebel group signed a peace deal last year.

The pact, which calls for a cease-fire and legislation to establish a Muslim-led autonomous region, would pave the way for tourism, agribusiness and mining. But now Filipinos from the Senate to the streets are questioning that deal — and the competency of their otherwise popular president.

Souring their attitude was a government commando operation in January to capture suspected terrorists on Mindanao that went horribly awry. As many as 250 people died in the raid, including 44 commandos.

The 24-hour battle between government forces and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or MILF, which had signed the peace deal, resulted in the death of a Malaysian-born suspected bomb maker who was on the U.S. list of most-wanted terrorists.

Other antigovernment Muslim rebel groups refused to sign the agreement and may have since become more radicalized. According to some reports, the slain terrorism suspect, Zulkifli Abdhir, also known as Marwan, may have trained volunteers for the militant group Islamic State who have relocated to Iraq and Syria. Abdhir was wanted by the FBI, but the U.S. government has denied that it participated in the commando raid.

"The problem right now is whether you trust the [Muslim rebel group] to be the policeman" on Mindanao, said Ramon Casiple, a political commentator and executive director of the Philippine advocacy group Institute for Political and Electoral Reform.

Collapse of the peace deal would set back development of the Philippines' mineral-rich second-largest island, kept largely in poverty by 40 years of violence. The conflict killed about 120,000 people, and Mindanao developed a reputation for the kidnapping of foreign tourists.

Tourists have avoided the island's pristine tropical coastlines and Mt. Apo, the country's highest peak. Foreign investors have also stayed away.

Muslims who moved eastward from nearby islands belonging to Malaysia and Indonesia have long claimed authority over Mindanao, putting them in conflict for centuries with the Philippine government and the mostly Catholic Filipinos who controlled the lion's share of resources.

Filipinos are now angrily asking why 44 Special Action Force commandos died in the Jan. 25 raid near Mamasapano city. Some hold President Benigno Aquino III responsible for having approved the costly attack on a rebel stronghold.

"People are beginning to think that he was the one on top of the situation, therefore if he had abandoned 44 soldiers to be slaughtered, then he has that level of responsibility," said Jose Mari Lacson, the head of research with the Manila stock brokerage Campos Lanuza & Co., who has taken a keen interest in the situation.

Elected in 2010, Aquino had enjoyed popularity for his foreign policy initiatives, economic reforms and pursuit of the Mindanao peace plan. Since the bloody clash, he's been in damage-control mode.

"It has clearly emerged that the situation our troops found on the ground was vastly different from what was expected under the plans," Aquino said in a Feb. 6 speech, one of three since the raid. "It is my responsibility to find justice at the soonest possible time."

The clamor for accountability and the specter of possible policy changes have transfixed Filipinos, who avidly listen to radio broadcasts of congressional hearings on the issue. Four of six articles on the front page of the Feb. 13 Manila Bulletin focused on political fallout from the gun battle.

Even staunch supporters were aware the peace deal would not prove a cure-all. Another powerful rebel group opposed the truce and still controls parts of Mindanao, an island with about 25 million people, a quarter of the country's population.

That group, the Moro National Liberation Front, backed attacks in September 2013 that left 171 rebels, police officers, soldiers and civilians dead and caused thousands to flee the city of Zamboanga.

The peace deal signatories said in statements released recently that they still support the cease-fire and the Bangsamoro Basic Law, which would create a region in western Mindanao where the MILF and government share power but gives most to the rebel group. The MILF's chief negotiator, Mohagher Iqbal, pledged to a Philippine Senate committee Feb. 12 that the group was not harboring terrorists, local media reported.

Since the attack, however, some senators have questioned whether the proposed autonomy-sharing law would prove constitutional.

Additional militias fought alongside the Muslim rebels, local news reports say, while the government commandos had no immediate backup. After having been pinned by sniper fire, some surviving government forces were airlifted out the next day.

The government, rather than press the MILF on its relations with would-be terrorists, says it wants to keep peace with the rebel group.

"We are optimistic," said Sona Shrestha, principal country economist with the Asian Development Bank, a nongovernmental organization working on rural infrastructure projects in Mindanao. "In terms of tourism and agriculture, the potential there is huge. They can potentially play a key role in terms of the overall development of the country."

Jennings is a special correspondent.

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