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Peace deal in works in Philippines

MANILA — President Benigno Aquino III of the Philippines announced Sunday that his government has reached a preliminary peace deal with the nation’s largest Muslim rebel group in a major breakthrough toward ending a decades-long insurgency.

Aquino said the agreement — a road map for a new autonomous region for minority Muslims in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation’s south — was an assurance that the Moro Islamic Liberation Front insurgents will no longer aim to secede from the country.

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The agreement, to be signed Oct. 15 in Manila, spells out 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 could be reached by 2016, when Aquino’s six-year term ends, officials said.

“This framework agreement paves the way for final and enduring peace in Mindanao,” Aquino said, referring to the southern Philippine region and 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,” and that the two sides still have to work out the details. Those talks are expected to be tough but doable, officials and rebels said.

Ghadzali Jaafar, the rebels’ vice chairman, said the agreement provides a huge relief to people who have long suffered from war and are “now hoping the day would come when there will be no need to bear arms.”

The deal marks the most significant progress in 15 years of on-and-off negotiations with the 11,000-strong Moro group on ending an uprising that has left more than 120,000 people dead, displaced about 2 million others, 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 United States welcomed the accord Sunday. “This agreement is a testament to the commitment of all sides for a peaceful resolution to the conflict in the southern Philippines,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said. “The next steps will be to ensure that the framework agreement is fully implemented.”

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