MILF: Rebels struggling for Muslim homeland

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Oct 15 2012 09:31 PM | Updated as of Oct 16 2012 05:31 AM

MANILA, Philippines - The Philippines' biggest Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), has struggled for more than 40 years for their own homeland in the far south of the country.

The MILF signed a peace pact with the government on Monday that would see the group's 12,000 soldiers lay down their arms by 2016 in exchange for self-rule in an autonomous region.

However one challenge for the MILF's leaders will be to convince its fighters to leave the battle field, where many of their relatives have spilled blood in a war that has left 150,000 dead.

To many of them, the armed struggle for a Muslim homeland in the country's resource rich, but impoverished southern Mindanao region, is justified under Islamic law.

Muslims claim Mindanao as their ancestral domain, long before Spanish Christians colonised the country in the 1500s.

Disarming an MILF fighter would make him "a fighting cock without spurs" Guiazakallaha Jaafar, a 28-year-old brigade chief who has 3,000 fighters under his command, told AFP from the group's headquarters in Mindanao last week.

"They can make us into a police force, or village watchers, even militia units. But they can not just take away our guns."

The core of the MILF fighters are between Jaafar's age or are in their 30s and 40s, men who had inherited soldiery from their fathers or grand fathers.

They wear army fatigues, use ranks and are armed with a vast array of weapons -- from World War II-era Garand rifles and M-14s to state-of-the art sniper rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank weapons.

Their leader is Murad Ebrahim, a battle-scarred fighter in his 60s who once led daring raids on military positions across Mindanao, but who in the past decade has evolved into a peace maker.

Ebrahim joined the war at 22, when he dropped out of a five-year civil engineering course.

He was following a call by a charismatic scholar named Nur Misuari, who in the early 1970s founded the first organised Muslim rebel force, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

In the early 1980s, Ebrahim and Cairo-trained scholar Salamat Hashim split from the MNLF to officially form the MILF. Ebrahim and Hashim wanted to keep pursuing independence, while Misauri wanted to negotiate for autonomy

Misuari eventually signed a peace deal with the government in 1996, leaving the MILF to continue the insurgency. However Hashim and Ebrahim also began looking for a negotiated settlement soon after the MNLF's peace deal.