Security forces confiscated weapons from dozens of followers of former guerrilla leader Nur Misuari at a peace rally this weekend, weeks after President Rodrigo Duterte announced he would involve the group in peace efforts in the southern Philippines.
About 200 sympathizers and members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) marched toward the town of Buluan, capital of Maguindanao province, supposedly for a peace rally on Sunday, but the presence of so many armed militants alarmed the local community, the military said.
Troops backed by armored personnel carriers were immediately dispatched to the area, and after a tense standoff, the MNLF fighters agreed to disarm peacefully, regional military spokesman Lt. Col. Edwin Alburo told reporters.
“They did not resist when the Army asked them to turn in their guns to authorities,” Alburo said, referring to the MNLF members.
After negotiations with the group’s leader, Ustadz Jamaluddin Abdullah, the guerrillas turned over almost 40 high-powered rifles. Abdullah also said the supposed “peace rally” was organized by the MNLF itself, although they could not explain if they had coordinated with local officials, the military said.
All of the MNLF fighters who were armed wore fatigues, officials said. Under a peace agreement signed with Manila in 1996, MNLF members are not allowed to carry firearms or wear their uniforms outside of their camps, military officials said.
“MNLF members can converge for dialogues and other peaceful activities, as long as they are not in uniform and under arms,” Maj. Gen. Diosdado Carreon, commander of a joint task force in the central Mindanao region, told reporters.
The incident came three weeks after President Duterte met with Misuari in the southern city of Davao and agreed to set up a “coordinating committee” to study what the MNLF’s role would be under the new autonomous region in the south, as part of broader plans to widen the peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
The MILF broke away from the MNLF in 1978, after Misuari opted to drop his bid for a separate state in exchange for autonomy in the south. He later became a governor of an autonomous region, but Manila subsequently declared the autonomous region a failure.
The MILF signed its own peace accord with Manila in 2014, but opted for an extended autonomy. MILF leaders now control a transitional government in the southern region, and Duterte has been trying to accommodate Misuari politically to prevent another round of violence.
When Duterte became president three years ago, one of his first acts was to drop rebellion charges against Misuari, whose armed forces in 2013 laid siege to Zamboanga City, engaging troops in fierce battles that left more than 200 people dead.
The entire southern Philippines remains under military rule, two years after Islamic State-linked militants laid siege to the southern city of Marawi. The months-long attack killed 1,200 people, most of them militants.