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August 19, 2017

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Manila, rebels agree to landmark peace accord

MANILA/KUALA LUMPUR -- The Philippine government and Muslim rebels agreed a deal to end a 40-year conflict that has killed more than 120,000 people, President Benigno Aquino said on Sunday, paving the way for a political and economic revival of the country's troubled south.

The agreement begins a roadmap to create a new autonomous region in the south of the mainly Roman Catholic country before the end of Aquino's term in 2016, giving the Muslim-dominated area greater political powers and more control over resources.

Expectations are high that after nearly 15 years of violence-interrupted talks, both the government and the country's largest Muslim rebel group will keep their pledges in the agreement, to be signed Oct. 15 in Manila and witnessed by Aquino and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.

"This framework agreement is about rising above our prejudices. It is about casting aside the distrust and myopia that has the plagued efforts of the past," Aquino said via a live broadcast from the presidential palace.

The new entity, whose exact size will decided by plebiscites ahead of elections in 2016, will be called Bangsamoro — the term for those who are native to the region and which Aquino said honored "the struggles of our forebears in Mindanao."

The south's volatile and often violent politics could still hamper the plans. There is a risk that radical Islamic factions could split off from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and carry on fighting in a region that has a history of links with al Qaeda militants.

Shortly after the announcement, a breakaway group said it would continue to fight for an independent Islamic state.

"We do not care if the government and the (Moro rebels) reached an agreement. We do not want the Bangsamoro entity or whatever they may call it," said Abu Misry Mama, spokesman of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement, in the southern city of Davao.

The group launched attacks on army positions in the south in August as government and rebel negotiators held talks in Kuala Lumpur, but were repulsed by government troops.

Another threat comes from powerful clans who control some areas in the region and may fear a loss of political influence.

The Islamist front and the government still need to thrash out details of their broad agreement in the months ahead as a 15-member commission drafts a law by 2015 to send to Congress.

The two sides agreed only that there would be "just and equitable" sharing of resources, which are believed to include large reserves of natural gas. Determining how much power the area will have over law, such as its scope to administer sharia justice, is another remaining challenge for negotiators.

Philippine chief negotiator Marvic Leonen told reporters in Kuala Lumpur, where the talks were held, that many hurdles remain and that the agreement was just the beginning.

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