The Philippines' largest Muslim rebel group has started to hand over weapons on Tuesday in order to show their commitment to a historic peace agreement.
One hundred and forty five fighters took part of the symbolic ceremony by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and 75 firearms - including mortar and rocket launchers - were handed over, in the presence of an independent body led by Turkish ambassador Haydar Berk.
Philippines President Benigno Aquino III and MILF leader Al Haj Murad Ebrahim also attended the decommissioning ceremony.
Former MILF fighters took the first steps towards civilian life with the promise of government support in the ceremony, which was held in Maguindanao, central Mindanao. The independent decommissioning body will store the weapons in a mutually designated depot.
Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief General Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr. said "this is the first time that a rebel group will be voluntarily turning over its arms and reverting its combatants to normal, civilian lives. This is a historic event," Anadolu Agency reported.
The government will provide a cash handout to former fighters for education, training and livelihood, The Philippine Star newspaper said.
The peace deal, called the Annex on Normalization of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB), was signed by the MILF and the government last year after 17 years of talks brokered by Malaysia.
“As I look at the faces of each of our 145 brothers here this morning, I see 145 stories of struggle, of pain, of hopelessness and even of death, yet I also see 145 stories of hope and faith that indeed peace is near and that all the sacrifices have been worth it,” MILF leader Murad said, in quotes carried by the AP.
MILF's chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal added that they have to undertake "one of the [MILF's] most difficult decisions," "for the sake of peace, for the sake of having real peace in Mindanao and for the sake of the need for normalisation," AA reported.
The Philippines' House of Representatives approved the Bangsamoro basic law (BBL) last month, which is also part of the peace deal and will create a new autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao with greater powers and resources. It will replace the 26 year old Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao with a new, parliamentary, MILF-led entity.
The peace deal is a top priority of the government of President Benigno Aquino III, as the country readies for the 2016 elections. The deadline was jeopardised after attacks on Philippine forces by breakaway rebel groups that are opposed to the deal and continue fighting for an independent state.
The Philippines government and the country’s one-time largest Muslim group MILF hope to end 45-year conflict which has killed around 120,000 people, displaced 2 million and stunted growth in the poor but resource-rich south.
The MILF will surrender thousands of weapons in return for control of their economy, culture and politics if the peace deal is completed successfully. The deadline for the process is October.