Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad wrapped up a two-day visit to Manila by meeting on Friday with an ex-separatist guerrilla chief who leads a newly established autonomous Muslim region in the Philippine south, officials said.
Mahathir, 93, discussed challenges of developing the post-war economy in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao with Murad Ebrahim, chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) who recently assumed the region’s top leadership post, said Ebrahim and others who attended the meeting.
“I told him about our struggle and the way we want to move forward. We want programs to benefit the people of the region,” Ebrahim told BenarNews afterwards.
Mahathir met with Ebrahim at a hotel in Manila before ending his first official trip to the Philippines since returning to power, after leading the opposition to a stunning upset in last year’s general election in neighboring Malaysia.
Five years ago, the Malaysian government brokered a peace deal between Manila and MILF that ended the guerrilla group’s separatist rebellion in exchange for ultimately creating the autonomous Muslim region, which lies in predominantly Islamic areas of the south.
Ebrahim will oversee the autonomous region’s self-rule until its people elect their own parliament by 2022. He had acknowledged earlier that bringing progress to the war-scarred region would not be easy, because many breakaway groups and militants allied with the Islamic State (IS) extremist group still exist in remote southern areas.
“Prime Minister Mahathir told him it’s easy to shoot and kill, but it’s difficult to develop,” the southern region, said Nabil Tan, a Philippine official and undersecretary of the Mindanao peace process, who was also at Friday’s meeting.
“Chairman Murad said ‘yes, that is the next level of our struggle – how to develop and transform our revolutionary organization,’” Tan, a close associate of Ebrahim, said.
In a brief statement to reporters after their meeting, Murad said Mahathir had told him that as long as there was peace in the region “then everything will come.”
Mahathir visited the Philippines weeks after voters in the south agreed to establish the autonomous Muslim region.
While MILF abandoned its rebellion in 2014, many of its former fighters broke away and accused the group of selling out in the struggle for a genuine and independent Muslim state in the south.
A breakaway group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), has allied itself with Islamic State. It, however, did not join an IS-led takeover of the southern city of Marawi in 2017, but launched offensives elsewhere in the Mindanao region to distract the military.
On Thursday, during a meeting in Manila, Mahathir and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte agreed to boosting bilateral cooperation in the fight against militancy in Mindanao, where IS militants remain at large.
Airstrikes in Jolo
While Murad and Mahatir were meeting in Manila, the Philippine military launched fresh airstrikes against suspected Abu Sayyaf militant positions in the jungles of Patikul on southern Jolo Island, officials said.
The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), the smallest but the fiercest of militant groups in the south, has been blamed for the country’s worst terrorist attacks. A Jolo faction led by Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan is believed to have carried out twin-bombings that killed 23 people at a local church in late January, Philippine authorities said.
The airstrikes targeted Sawadjaan’s group as well as a group led by Radulan Sahiron, another Abu Sayyaf commander, according to Brig. Gen. Divino Rey Pabayo Jr, commander of military ground operations.
Sawadjaan had allegedly worked with several militants, including Indonesian suicide bombers in plotting and carrying out the Jan. 27 attack at the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral in Jolo, Philippine officials said. However, authorities in Jakarta discredited the Indonesian angle.
It was not yet immediately known if there were any fresh enemy casualties in the airstrikes.
“We have stepped-up our tactical offensives against the ASG following the monitored and validated consolidation of the ASG terrorists in the hinterland of Patikul,” Pabayo said.
“This military offensive is launched before they could carry out whatever terrorist action they are planning which I believe something big as they have consolidated such number of terrorists,” he added.