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May 28, 2017

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Top rebels arrive in Manila on historic peace trip

MANILA -- The leaders of the Philippines' biggest Muslim rebel group arrived in Manila on Sunday for a historic visit aimed at ending one of Asia's longest and deadliest insurgencies.

Moro Islamic Liberation Front chief Murad Ebrahim and other senior rebel figures emerged from their remote bases in the country's south to oversee the signing of an accord on Monday that outlines a roadmap for peace by 2016.

The accord, announced by President Benigno Aquino a week ago, has won applause from foreign governments and the United Nations as a rare chance to end a rebellion that has killed an estimated 150,000 people since the 1970s.

However rank-and-file soldiers of the 12,000-strong Moro front, as well as the group's leaders and independent security analysts, have warned that many obstacles could still derail the peace process.

Ebrahim, an aging warrior in his 60s who has spent most of his life in the southern Philippine region of Mindanao, is making his first official trip as the group's leader to Manila.

The signing will be at the presidential palace, so Ebrahim will also become the first Moro rebel chief to get inside the country's inner sanctum of power.

"We feel honored to be welcomed in Manila, but I must stress this is just the beginning of the peace journey," Ebrahim's deputy for political affairs, Ghazali Jaafar, told AFP.

Jaafar and other senior rebel officials arrived on a chartered plane in the Philippine capital on Sunday afternoon.

Potentially because of the sensitivities of the visit and security concerns, Ebrahim arrived in secret on a separate plane.

Aquino's chief adviser on the peace process, Teresita Deles, told AFP on Sunday evening that Ebrahim had arrived, but neither she nor the Moro front gave any further details.

In a statement shortly after Aquino's announcement on the "framework agreement" that capped 15 years of rebel front negotiation efforts, Ebrahim said the deal "lays down the firm foundations of a just and enduring peace formula."

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