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Philippine gov't, Muslim rebels to sign peace pact

MANILA -- The Philippine government and Muslim rebels will sign a pact Thursday to end one of Asia's longest and deadliest insurgencies, but both sides caution much work needs to be done to secure a lasting peace.

Following 17 years of negotiations, Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) leaders will sign the peace deal in exchange for control of a planned autonomous region in the impoverished south of the mainly Catholic nation.

“For many years we have been leading the Bangsamoro people's struggle and our people have gone through a lot of hardships,” MILF vice chairman Ghazali Jaafar told AFP, using a local term for the Philippines' Muslim minority.

“This agreement is very important to us because this ends the fighting in Mindanao.”

Muslim rebels have been battling for more than four decades for independence or autonomy in the southern region of Mindanao, which they regard as their ancestral homeland.

Tens of thousands of people have died in the conflict, while Mindanao has become one of the poorest and most corrupt regions in the Philippines.

The MILF, which the military estimates has about 10,000 fighters, is the biggest remaining rebel group yet to sign a peace accord.

Philippine leader Benigno Aquino and MILF chairman Murad Ebrahim will oversee the signing of the peace deal during a ceremony at the presidential palace in Manila.

The pact will see the two sides become partners in seeking to implement the peace deal.

The MILF chiefs would eventually order their men to give up their arms while themselves becoming politicians leading the autonomous region.

The autonomous region would comprise about 10 percent of the Philippines' territory, have its own police force, a regional parliament and power to levy taxes. The national government would retain control over defense.

Nevertheless, the MILF, the government and independent observers warn a lasting peace is far from guaranteed, with many obstacles still to be overcome before the middle of 2016 — a crucial deadline as that is when Aquino will step down.

Enduring Distrust

“Implementation will not be easy,” the government's chief peace negotiator, Miriam Ferrer, told reporters, while also warning other armed groups may seek to derail the process by launching deadly attacks in the south.

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Members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) women's auxiliary brigade frisk visitors entering an exchange venue in Sultan Kudarat, on the southern island of Mindanao, Philippines on Feb. 11, 2013. (AFP)

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