The Philippine government has freed a top Muslim rebel whose recent arrest had threatened to jeopardise a peace deal to end one of Asia’s longest running insurgencies, both sides said on Wednesday.
Wahid Tundok and his armed bodyguards were detained at a government checkpoint near the southern city of Cotabato on Sunday ahead of a peace deal with the 12,000-member Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) expected within weeks.
Government as well as MILF negotiators swiftly criticised the arrest of Tundok, described by the military as a “high-value target” facing criminal charges including arson. The rebels had suggested it could be a deal-breaker.
“He is now in good hands,” MILF chief for political affairs Ghazali Jaafar said on Wednesday but declined to give further details.
“We are happy at the development.”
Jaafar and other senior MILF leaders say Tundok is a ranking rebel commander covered by an immunity guarantee from the government.
A rebel source close to the talks said Tundok had been turned over to an unnamed local Muslim official. The status of his guards was unknown.
Philippine government negotiators said in a statement on Wednesday that a lower court had rescinded its arrest warrant for Tundok.
Negotiations to free Tundok were spearheaded by a joint rebel-government committee monitoring the MILF ceasefire, leading to the “smooth resolution of the matter”, the government statement said.
The military had alleged Tundok had committed crimes on Mindanao island, the southern third of the Philippine islands where the Muslim insurgency has left some 150,000 dead since the 1970s.
But rebel and government sources privy to the peace negotiations said that Tundok had been actively supporting the talks and helping the military hunt a breakaway rebel faction opposed to the peace negotiations.
The government and the MILF wrapped up formal negotiations in January, and are expected to sign a final peace deal as early as mid-March, government negotiators said.
The deal calls for the creation of an expanded Muslim autonomous region, sharing of wealth in the area and eventually the disarmament of the rebel force.