By Karl Romano, Jeoffrey Maitem and Richel V. Umel
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Thursday signed an autonomy law promising wider self-rule for Muslims in the south, his spokesman said.
Under the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), four million Muslim Filipinos will be allowed to form an elected parliament and administration in Islamic-majority areas of southern Mindanao and nearby islands, where five decades of insurgency have left more than 100,000 people dead.
The law looks to give the people in the south control over many local government functions, including taxation and education, and it will allow Muslim Filipinos to incorporate Islamic law into their justice system. Both houses of the Philippine congress approved the BOL bill earlier this week.
“After much confusion, the president has signed into law the Bangsamoro Organic Law,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque told BenarNews.
The law will go to a vote in designated provinces this year before elections, which are expected to take place next year.
As part of the autonomy deal, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is required to gradually disband its armed force, estimated by the military to be about 11,000 fighters.
Hours before the president signed the bill into law, Philippine troops hunted southern militants linked to the extremist group Islamic State (IS), killing one suspect in a gun battle, military officials reported.
Residents in Masiu, a town in mountainous Lanao del Sur province, sought the help of the military after several gunmen believed to be supporters of the Maute gang were seen in the area, an army official said.
“The government forces responded to the information of the concerned civilians,” said Maj. Ronald Suscano, spokesman for the 1st Infantry Tabak Division that operates in the region.
Soldiers from the division targeted Filipino militant leaders Panarigan Tama Baoraki and Hadji Rasul Amimbering in the strike, Suscano said. A brief encounter took place near Masiu, leaving at least one militant dead, but the two wanted militants and their followers escaped.
Both were alleged leaders of a militant faction that backed the Maute faction, which fought in the southern city of Marawi last year. The five-month battle – the biggest the Philippines has seen since World War II – ended in October 2017, leaving the city in ruins and killing more than 1,200, mostly militants.
Several fighters from Malaysia and Indonesia as well as the Middle East were killed, although military officials said they believe other foreigners could have escaped and joined other IS-linked groups in the south.
Suscano said several weapons were recovered after the battle, including at least two M16 rifles, RPG launchers, grenades and drug paraphernalia. Troops also seized black IS flags.
The military earlier reported that militants who had managed to escape from Marawi were recruiting Muslim youths with promises of cash payments they would not be able to earn elsewhere in the largely poor rural communities of Mindanao.
The military and the local government units of Lanao del Sur province have been conducting a series of activities to counter the enemy recruitment drive.
Felipe Villamor in Manila contributed to this report.