MANILA, Philippines (AP) -- The largest Muslim rebel group in the Philippines said Tuesday it had formed a political party as it turns away from a decades-long rebellion after signing a peace pact with the government.
Mohagher Iqbal of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front said his rebel group's new political group, the United Bangsamoro Justice Party, would be a springboard to contesting the leadership of a more powerful Muslim autonomous region to be established in the south of the largely Catholic Philippines.
The rebels signed an autonomy deal with the government on March 27 to end years of fighting that has killed tens of thousands and held back progress in resource-rich but poverty-wracked southern regions that have been the homeland of minority Muslim Filipinos. The agreement was welcomed by the United States and other governments, which fear that remote Muslim rebel strongholds could breed al-Qaida-inspired extremists.
The 11,000-strong Moro rebel group, Iqbal said, would eventually be transformed into a social movement that would help call for good governance and the rebuilding of former battlefields into vibrant communities with adequate schools, hospitals and public infrastructure.
"We can continue the struggle but no longer with arms," Iqbal told The Associated Press by telephone from the south.
Under the peace accord, called the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front agreed to gradually disband their guerrilla force and drop a demand for a separate Islamic homeland in exchange for broader autonomy. An existing five-province Muslim autonomous region is to be replaced by a more powerful, better-funded and potentially larger region to be called Bangsamoro.
Bangsamoro is the term used by the rebels to refer to Muslims as well as other ethnic groups in the southern Philippines.
The new Muslim autonomous region is expected to be launched in 2016 after Congress passes legislation creating it. Iqbal's group said it was too early for it to draft candidates for the planned a 50-member parliament to be led by a chief minister.
Iqbal said the guerrillas will compete only in Muslim autonomous regional elections and not regular Philippine elections. The party still needs to be approved by Manila's Commission on Elections.
Despite the peace deal, at least four smaller armed Islamic groups have vowed to keep fighting the government, including the Abu Sayyaf, a Muslim extremist network with international links that Philippine troops have been battling with U.S. military support.
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