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Philippines, Muslim rebels vow to spare civilians

Philippines, Muslim rebels vow to spare civilians

The Philippine government and a large Muslim rebel group signed an accord pledging not to target civilians and to protect schools and hospitals, an indication of improving relations after years of conflict, officials said Wednesday.
The agreement, signed in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, aims to avoid massive civilian suffering in the southern Philippines, where hundreds were killed and more than half a million displaced when peace talks collapsed last year.
"The next logical move is to resume the peace negotiations," said Eid Kabalu, spokesman for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which has been fighting for Muslim self-rule in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation's south.
Both sides will discuss measures to enforce the accord once formal talks resume later this year, including international monitors, said government negotiator Rafael Seguis.
"It's aimed at preventing massive numbers of internally displaced persons," he said.
Displaced civilians have born the brunt of the conflict, which has claimed at least 120,000 lives since the 1970s.
In the agreement signed Tuesday, both sides committed not to target noncombatants, along with "schools, hospitals, religious premises, health and food distribution centers, or relief operations." They also agreed not to block the flow of food aid and other relief goods.
Negotiations collapsed in August last year when the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a preliminary accord on an expanded Muslim autonomous region.
A deadly rampage by three rebel commanders upset by the stalled deal sparked months of clashes that killed hundreds and forced more than half a million out of their homes. Most have since returned.
The fighting in the marshy heartland of the southern Mindanao region eased in July and both sides agreed last month to resume the negotiations.
U.S. and European officials have called for a resumption of the talks, saying the peace process would help turn rebel strongholds into economic growth areas instead of sanctuaries of al-Qaida-linked militants.