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Philippines' peace accord blocked

The Supreme Court prevented the signing of a territorial accord between the state and MILF, a rebel group, Monday. Opponents had called the deal unconstitutional.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 5, 2008

No deal: Protesters in Zamboanga, on the island of Mindanao, opposed a deal with the rebel group, MILF, Monday.

Al Jacinto/AP

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BANGKOK, THAILAND

The Philippine government was due to sign Tuesday a landmark accord with an Islamic rebel group that would create an expanded Muslim homeland on the southern island of Mindanao. But in an unexpected setback, the Philippine Supreme Court on Monday blocked the signing and ordered a court hearing on Aug. 15 into claims that the proposed deal was unconstitutional.

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The pact had been expected to pave the way for the two sides to ink a comprehensive peace deal to end a decades-old insurgency that has stunted economic development on resource-rich Mindanao and incubated lethal terrorist networks across Southeast Asia. The eleventh-hour judicial intervention jolted negotiators from both sides, who had traveled to the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, for Tuesday's signing ceremony.

"I don't know what will happen next," Mohaqher Iqbal, the chief peace negotiator of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), told Reuters.

Opponents had charged that the pact was "ill-advised" and potentially unconstitutional as it involved territorial concessions in Mindanao. Aides to President Gloria Arroyo deny this, saying lawmakers will be asked to legislate on any final legal settlement with the MILF.

The pact on territorial claims would have been the third signed between the two sides since 2003. Following Tuesday's planned signing, negotiators were preparing to start work on a final binding document that could be ready within a year, says Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita. "The national government is doing everything possible to come to a final agreement," he says.

Local Christians protest

The proposed Muslim homeland would have control over the exploitation of minerals and other natural resources within its jurisdiction, according to a draft copy of the accord. Its executives could conduct overseas trade missions. It would also run its own security force, which is designed to absorb the bulk of MILF fighters. They numbered around 11,000 at their peak but have dwindled since a 2001 cease-fire.

Such concessions are bitterly opposed by Christian landowners and politicians who fear land grabs and have petitioned the Supreme Court to block the pact. Thousands of Christians in Zamboanga, a city in southwest Mindanao, rallied on Monday against the deal, Reuters reported.

A wave of government-backed migration since the 1940s has seen Christian settlers acquire land in Mindanao that previously belonged to Muslims.

Tensions over land helped fuel a 1972 uprising by the Moro National Liberation Front that claimed 120,000 lives over four years. In 1977, the MILF broke away from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) to pursue an explicit Islamic-based agenda, including sending volunteers to Afghanistan to fight Soviet occupation.

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