MANILA - Swiss experts will soon begin clearing unexploded bombs in the southern Philippines, after Muslim rebels and the government signed a peace pact, the European Union said Thursday.
Dozens of people have been killed or maimed by unexploded devices on Mindanao Island and 800,000 have been unable to use their farmland because of hazards, said European Union ambassador to the Philippines Guy Ledoux.
The new move to clear explosives from Mindanao, the country's second-biggest island, would allow those residents to begin cultivating their land again, Ledoux added.
He said that the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action had signed a contract last month to implement the $700,000, EU-funded project, about the same time the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) signed its peace pact with the government.
The 12,000-strong MILF agreed in the pact to give up its quest for an independent homeland in Mindanao in return for significant power and wealth-sharing in a new autonomous region there to be known as Bangsamoro.
The pact aims to achieve a final peace by 2016, ending an insurgency that has claimed an estimated 150,000 lives since the 1970s.
"Both the MILF and the Philippine army side have signified they are ready to implement it (the clearing program). That is very significant, it shows how open the dialogue is between the two parties," Ledoux said.
He said the project covered an estimated 450,000 hectares (1.1 million acres) of farming land, an area four times the size of Hong Kong, which was not being used because of the danger posed by the munitions.
He said the threat mostly came from unexploded artillery and mortar shells, rather than land mines.
"Both sides have been throwing bombs and rockets at each other, and some didn't explode," he said.
Ledoux said the project was expected to begin in early 2013.
Von Al-Haq, spokesman for the MILF, confirmed his group was in talks with the EU and the Philippine government over its role in the project.
"There have been cases where farmers were killed by ordnance that they had accidentally triggered," he said.
A spokeswoman for the Philippine government's peace negotiating team, Polly Cunanan, told AFP by email that it would comment on the issue later.
The negotiators are now in Malaysia to work out unresolved issues in the peace accord.