The Philippine government and Muslim rebels have agreed to a preliminary peace deal for the country's troubled south, President Benigno Aquino has announced, signalling an end to a 40-year conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people and crippled the region's economy.
The deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), announced on Sunday, sets in train a roadmap to create a new autonomous region in the Muslim-majority areas in the south of the mainly Catholic country before the end of Aquino's term in 2016.
Aquino described the deal in a nationally televised announcement as a "framework agreement". It follows marathon negotiations between the government and the MILF in Malaysia, which is brokering the talks.
The agreement is expected to be signed in a few days in the capital, Manila, officials said. It 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 can be reached by 2016, when Aquino's six-year term ends, according to the officials.
"This framework agreement paves the way for final and enduring peace in Mindanao," Aquino said, referring to the Philippines' main southern region and the 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," saying "there are still details both sides must thresh out".
Al Jazeera's Jamela Alindogan, reporting from Manila, said the framework agreement had been a long time coming. "Negotiations betwen the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Philippine government in fact have been going on for decades," she said.
"This is just a preliminary peace pact agreement," she said.
"The most crucial part is the implementation of the peace pact agreement on the ground - how to effectively change the lives of people on the ground. As we know there are many forces there, are they going to be willing to share the powers and controls that they have?"
"Since President Aquino took office two years ago there has been very strong relations, good relations, between the two parties," our correspondent said.
|President Benigno Aquino said the deal paves the way for "final and enduring peace" [AFP]
"The sincerity of President Aquino to have a long-lasting peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front has been well accepted. I think that political capital has been well spent."
The deal marks the most significant progress in 15 years of negotiations with the 11,000-strong Moro group on ending an uprising that has left more than 120,000 people dead and held back development in the south.
Western governments have long worried that rebel strongholds could become breeding grounds for al-Qaeda-affiliated extremists.
"The parties agree that the status quo is unacceptable,"said the 13-page agreement, seen by The Associated Press.
It calls for the creation of a new Muslim autonomous region called the "Bangsamoro" to replace an existing one, which was created in 1989 and that Aquino characterised on Sunday as "failed experiment".
The accord calls for the establishment of a 15-member "Transition Commission" that would thresh out the details of the preliminary agreement and draft a law creating the new Muslim autonomous region in about two years.
The rebels would undertake a "graduated programme" to decommission their armed guerrilla units "so that they are put beyond use," the agreement said, without specifying a timetable.
Philippine officials said the preliminary accord would be posted on the government's website for public scrutiny and signed soon in the Philippine capital in the presence of Aquino, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and Moro rebel chief Al Haj Murad Ibrahim.