MANILA, Philippines — Muslim rebels and the Philippine government overcame decades of bitter hostilities and took their first tentative step toward ending one of Asia's longest-running insurgencies with the ceremonial signing of a preliminary peace pact Monday that both sides said presented both a hope and a challenge.
The framework agreement, also called a roadmap to a final peace settlement that is expected by 2016, grants minority Muslims in the southern Philippines broad autonomy in exchange for ending more than 40 years of violence that has killed tens of thousands of people and crippled development.
It was signed in Manila's Malacanang presidential palace by government negotiator Marvic Leonen and his counterpart from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Mohagher Iqbal. Also on hand to witness the historic moment were President Benigno Aquino III, rebel chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim — who set foot in the palace for the first time — and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose country helped broker the deal.
"We are men and leaders who want to make a difference and we have decided that the time has come for us to choose the moral high ground," Najib said. He said the deal "will protect the rights of the Bangsamoro people and preserve the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Philippines."
He cautioned it "does not solve all the problems, rather it sets the parameters in which peace can be found.
"After four decades, peace is within reach," he said.
The 13-page document outlines general agreements on major issues, including the extent of power, revenues and territory granted for a new Muslim autonomous region to be called Bangsamoro in this predominantly Roman Catholic nation.
It calls for the establishment of a 15-member Transition Commission to draft a law creating the new Muslim-administered region. The 11,000-strong rebel army will be deactivated gradually "beyond use," the agreement says, without specifying a timetable.
Aquino also said much work remains to be done and "the devil is in the details," but his government is committed to the country's south.
Murad said the agreement, on the heels of "almost 16 years of hard negotiations interspersed with armed confrontations ... (is) the most important document in the chapter of our history, a landmark document that restores to our people their Bangsamoro identity and their homeland, their right to govern themselves and the power to forge their destiny and future with their very hands."
Michael Mastura, a member of the rebel negotiating team, likened Monday's agreement to a takeoff.
"But then we have to fly, reach a plateau, and move on," he said.
Sonny Davao, deputy chief of the rebel army, said guerrilla commanders were ready to shift from armed struggle to helping build a new Muslim-administered region.
"We have to transform ourselves because we have responsibilities and obligations to our people and to Islam," said Davao, who shed his camouflage uniform for a dark coat with tie for the signing ceremony. "We are one in supporting the decision of our entire leadership."
The agreement says that the new Muslim-administered region will replace an existing autonomous territory made of five of the country's poorest and most violent provinces.
That territory was created by a 1996 peace agreement the government signed with the Moro National Liberation Front, but it was considered a failure because it did not end the conflict, the rebels did not disarm and it did not improve the lives of Muslims. Corruption, political violence and crimes such as kidnappings and extortion persisted, and the current Moro group continued to fight for self-rule.
Another preliminary accord in 2008 was struck down as unconstitutional because the Supreme Court ruled it would create a separate state.
Western governments have long worried over the presence of small numbers of al-Qaida-linked militants from the Middle East and Southeast Asia seeking combat training and collaboration with the Filipino insurgents.
One of those extremist groups, the Abu Sayyaf, is not part of any negotiations, but the hope is that the peace agreement will isolate its militants and deny them sanctuary and logistical support they had previously received from rebel commanders.
One of those hardline commanders, Ameril Umbra Kato, broke off from the main Moro insurgents last year. Kato's forces attacked the army in August, prompting an offensive that killed more than 50 fighters in the 200-strong rebel faction.
Abu Misri Mammah, a spokesman for Kato's forces, said Sunday that his group does not recognize the peace accord.
"That's a surrender," he said. "We won't waver from our armed struggle and continue to aspire for a separate Muslim homeland that won't be a creation of politicians."
Mastura said that rebel leaders have to forge a strong peace deal that could withstand any opposition.Comment on this story
"It is easy, just gather a few men and disturb, because there are many firearms around. But that's not the mainstream line," Mastura said. "That is why we have to show that this is the way rather than their way."
Iqbal has said his group would not lay down its weapons until a final peace accord is concluded. He said the insurgents could form a political party and run in democratic elections to get a chance at leading the autonomous region.
Associated Press writer Oliver Teves contributed to this report.