MANILA, Philippines – Sharing the limelight with the Philippine president, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak smiled and clapped Thursday as he witnessed the signing of a historic peace deal between Manila and Muslim insurgents that his government brokered.
The two-hour ceremony was a brief break for the Malaysian leader, who has been grappling with a crisis over a missing Malaysian airliner that has riveted the world.
Malaysia has been the facilitator of peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front since 2001 and has hosted the talks in Kuala Lumpur.
"In the pages of this agreement, we see the promise of a better future," Najib said. He spoke on a stage he shared with President Benigno Aquino III and peace negotiators in the presidential palace garden.
Najib promised Malaysia will remain a partner for peace for as long as it is needed, and will help in the development of the Muslim homeland in the southern Philippines.
But even during the ceremonious occasion, the airline tragedy was not far from people's minds.
Rebel chairman Murad Ibrahim expressed condolences for the families of the plane's passengers, and lauded Malaysia's handling of the incident.
Najib said the loss of the 239 people on board Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 "has been devastating" and Malaysia is "grateful for the support of friends and neighbors, including the Philippines."
"At this difficult time, we draw strength from the compassionate response of our fellow nations," he added.
Since the plane vanished early March 8 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, the world has been riveted by every twist and turn in the search.
Malaysia has been criticized over its handling of one of the most perplexing mysteries in aviation history. Much of the most strident criticism has come from relatives of the Chinese passengers, some of whom expressed outrage that Malaysia essentially declared their loved ones dead without recovering a single piece of wreckage.