Aaron Favila, Associated Press
MANILA, Philippines — Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said Sunday that his government has reached a preliminary peace agreement with the country's largest Muslim rebel group in a major breakthrough toward ending a decades-long insurgency.
Aquino described the deal in a nationally televised announcement as a "framework agreement" — a roadmap for establishing a new autonomous region to be administered by minority Muslims in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation's south. It follows marathon negotiations between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Malaysia, which is brokering the talks.
The agreement, which is to be signed on Oct. 15 in Manila, spells out the general principles on major issues, including the extent of power, revenues and territory of the Muslim region. If all goes well, a final peace deal could be reached by 2016, when Aquino's six-year term ends, officials said.
"This framework agreement paves the way for final and enduring peace in Mindanao," Aquino said, referring to the Philippines' main southern region and homeland of the country's Muslims. "This means that the hands that once held rifles will be put to use tilling land, selling produce, manning work stations and opening doorways of opportunity."
He cautioned, however, that "the work does not end here," and that the two sides need to thresh out the accord's details.
The deal marks the most significant progress in 15 years of on-and-off negotiations with the 11,000-strong Moro group on ending an uprising that has left more than 120,000 people dead, displaced about 2 million others and held back development in the south. Western governments have long worried that rebel strongholds could become breeding grounds for al-Qaida-affiliated extremists.
"The parties agree that the status quo is unacceptable," according to the 13-page agreement, seen by The Associated Press. It calls for the creation of a new Muslim autonomous region called "Bangsamoro" to replace an existing one created in 1989 which Aquino characterized as a "failed experiment," where poverty and corruption have forced many "to articulate their grievances through the barrel of a gun."
The accord calls for the establishment of a 15-member "Transition Commission" to work out the details of the preliminary agreement and draft a law creating the new Muslim autonomous region in about two years. The proposed law has to be approved by Congress.
Rebel forces would be deactivated gradually "beyond use," the agreement said, without specifying a timetable.
The Philippine government would continue to exercise exclusive powers over defense and security, foreign and monetary policy in the new autonomous region, where Muslims would be assured of an "equitable share of taxation, revenues, and the fruits of national patrimony ... and equal protection of laws and access to impartial justice," according to Aquino.
Philippine officials said the preliminary accord would be posted on the government's website for public scrutiny, and would be signed in Manila in the presence of Aquino, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and Moro rebel chief Al Haj Murad Ibrahim.
"It's been a long journey and this is an important milestone in our search for lasting peace," presidential peace talks adviser Teresita Deles told AP.
The United States, Britain, Malaysia and other countries welcomed the accord.
"We fully support the ongoing peace process and hope the parties can continue to avoid violence as they work toward a final resolution that will last for generations," U.S. Ambassador Harry Thomas Jr. said.
The new Muslim region would be built upon an existing autonomous territory, among the country's poorest and most violent, with more than 4 million people living in five provinces, two cities and 113 towns.
The Moro rebels earlier dropped a demand for a separate Muslim state and renounced terrorism.
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