Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels board a bus before heading to a weapons decommissioning ceremony at Camp Darapanan, Sultan Kudarat town on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao on September 7, 2019. Ferdinandh CABRERA - AFP

Muslim rebels in the mainly Catholic Philippines began handing over their guns to independent foreign monitors Saturday, as part of a treaty aimed at ending a decades-long separatist insurgency that has left about 150,000 people dead.

Just over a thousand guerrillas in the country’s restive south were turning in 940 weapons in a single day, the start of a graduated decommissioning process that aims to turn the country’s largest rebel force into a regular political party.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) fighters who were demobilised on Saturday represent a symbolic first step towards retiring what MILF says is a force of 40,000 in the coming years.

“The war is over… I have no firearms left,” Paisal Abdullah Bagundang, 56, a self-described veteran of more than 100 firefights with government security forces since the 1970s, told AFP.

But the disarmament will take time to make an impact in a place where violence is an almost-daily threat.

A bomb hidden in a parked motorcycle exploded near a market in Isulan town early on Saturday, just hours before President Rodrigo Duterte was to witness the decommissioning ceremony some 40 kilometres (25 miles) away in Sultan Kudarat.

Police said eight people were injured in the attack that was later claimed by the Islamic State group, according to SITE Intelligence, which monitors jihadist activities worldwide.

The decommissioning process “should not lead to expectations that it is going to result in a major deceleration in attacks”, said Francisco Lara, senior conflict adviser for Asia at watchdog International Alert, noting that the general public in the region are also armed.

Acquiring a gun is “like buying fish in the market” in the southwestern provinces where most of the Philippines’ Muslim minority live, MILF commander Murad Ebrahim told reporters.

But “if people no longer feel they need firearms to survive then they will easily give them up”, added Ebrahim, who is also chief minister of the area that has its own regional parliament, but no separate police force or military.

‘We are civilians now’

About a third of MILF combatants and their weapons are to be initially retired over the coming eight months.

Each retired fighter will receive a million pesos’ ($19,000) worth of cash, scholarships, health insurance, and training to become productive civilians.

Rebels facing criminal cases related to the insurgency will be granted amnesty, while those qualified can train to join the security forces, Duterte’s peace adviser Carlito Galvez told reporters.

“Let me assure our MILF combatants that the government will assist you as you re-integrate into society and enjoy fruitful and productive civilian lives,” Duterte told the ex-rebels in a speech Saturday.

Suharto Abdullah, 36, told AFP he had joined the MILF when he was 10 years old, but now plans to sell rice.

“We are civilians now and won’t be carrying guns any more,” he said.

Saida Limgas, a 66-year-old former fighter, warned she and others would take up arms again if poverty continues to hound their communities.

“The war will resume if the government reneges on what it promised us,” added Limgas, who said she dropped out of a Catholic-run high school and became a rebel courier and cook in 1969 after soldiers killed several of her cousins.

The second phase of decommissioning involving the main bulk of MILF fighters kicks in next year, with the rest to undergo the process before 2022.

With the MILF pact, jihadists now pose the biggest threat to security in the southern Philippines.

In a January attack claimed by IS, an Indonesian couple carried out suicide bombings at a Catholic cathedral on the Muslim-majority island of Jolo, killing 21 people.

In 2017, local and foreign militants flying the IS flag seized the city of Marawi, sparking a five-month battle that flattened the city centre and left more than 1,000 people dead.

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