EU boosts aid to Philippines to stimulate Muslim peace process

Manila (AFP) - The European Union announced on Wednesday that it was sharply boosting aid to the Philippines, largely to help sustain a peace process with Muslim rebels in the south.

EU ambassador Franz Jessen said the bloc was providing 5.5 million euros ($6 million) to five projects for the Muslim-dominated areas covered by the peace process even as the grouping more than doubled aid in general to the Philippines.

His announcement comes as a draft law to create the Muslim self-rule area appeared stalled in the legislature despite lobbying by President Benigno Aquino.

Aquino had hoped to have the draft law passed this year as a crucial step in ending decades of Muslim separatist violence that has claimed more than 100,000 lives since the 1970s.

"I want to reaffirm the importance the EU attaches to giving life to the (peace process) and to the development of the long-term political, economic and social pillars that will bring the peace dividend to the country as a whole," Jessen told reporters.

The EU ambassador said he would be visiting the southern Philippines to meet with key parties in the peace process including Muslim separatist guerrilla leaders.

He also said EU aid to the Philippines had been increased to 325 million euros in 2014 to 2020, more than double the amount released from 2007 to 2013, largely to help people in the impoverished south.

Although the Philippines is largely Christian, it has a significant Muslim minority who claim the southern region of Mindanao as their ancestral home.

The Muslim minority are among the poorest people in the strife-torn south, where economic development has been hampered by violence and criminality, often coming from Muslim armed groups.

Jessen said achieving peace would attract European investment and improve living conditions in the south.

A Norwegian and an Italian are believed to be among the people being held hostage by Muslim outlaw groups in the south but Jessen said prospective investors were aware of the risk.

It is feared that if the law to create a Muslim self-rule area is not in place before Aquino steps down next year, it may founder under his successor.