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Feb 12, 6:12 AM EST

Philippines, rebels fortify truce amid stalled peace pact



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MANILA, Philippines (AP) -- Philippine government and Muslim rebels have extended the stay of international cease-fire monitors at their first meeting since their peace pact stalled amid fears of fresh fighting.

Government negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer and her rebel counterpart, Mohagher Iqbal, expressed disappointment in a joint statement Friday over Philippine Congress's failure to pass a Muslim autonomy bill that's required under a 2014 peace accord that ended decades of fighting in the southern Philippines.

The statement was issued two days of talks in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which has brokered the peace deal.

Despite the setback, the government and the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front agreed to extend by another year the mission of Malaysia-led monitors that has helped keep a cease-fire. They also kept in place a joint group that allows the Islamic guerrillas to help government troops capture terrorists and outlaws.

It is hoped that both measures would prevent any outbreak of violence stemming from rebel frustration with the delay in the peace process.

Iqbal has warned that the setback has caused deep anxiety among guerrillas, and that the uncertainty could be exploited by radicals opposed to the peace deal.

The House of Representatives and the Senate ended the last regular session of their term early this month without passing the bill, which aims to establish a more powerful and potentially larger autonomous region for minority Muslims in the south of the largely Roman Catholic nation.

The bill was stalled by indignation over the killing early last year of 44 police commandos in fighting that involved some of the guerrillas from the main rebel group.

A new autonomy bill would have to be presented to a new Congress under the successor to President Benigno Aquino III, whose six-year term ends in June.

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