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Muslim rebels sign Philippine pact as step to peace

MANILA — Muslim rebels and the Philippine government overcame decades of bitter hostility and took their first tentative step Monday toward ending one of Asia’s longest-running insurgencies, with the signing of a preliminary peace pact that provides both hope and challenges.

The framework agreement creates a road map for a final peace settlement. It grants minority Muslims in the southern Philippines broad autonomy in exchange for ending more than 40 years of violence that has killed tens of thousands of people and crippled development.

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It was signed in Manila’s Malacanang presidential palace by government negotiator Marvic Leonen and his counterpart from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Mohagher Iqbal.

Also witnessing the historic moment were President Benigno Aquino III, rebel chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim — who set foot in the palace for the first time — and Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia, whose country helped broker the deal.

About 200 guerrillas and followers, all in dark business suits, joined the crowd of diplomats, officials, police, and army generals in a chandelier-lit hall to witness the signing. In their southern Philippine strongholds, thousands of guerrillas waved flags and gathered to celebrate.

‘‘The framework agreement before us will bring to an end the violence which claimed so many lives, and cut short so many futures,’’ Najib said. He said the deal would protect the rights of minority Muslims while preserving the Philippines’ territorial integrity.

‘‘After four decades, peace is within reach,’’ he said, adding that he hopes large numbers of Filipinos displaced by decades of strife, including many who fled to Malaysia, will be able to return to normal life.

But he cautioned that the agreement ‘‘does not solve all the problems; rather it sets the parameters in which peace can be found.’’

The 13-page document outlines general agreements on major issues, including the extent of power, revenues, and territory granted for a new Muslim autonomous region to be called Bangsamoro in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation. The large number of army troops will gradually be replaced by a regional police, which could enlist qualified guerrillas, officials and rebels.

It calls for the establishment of a 15-member Transition Commission to draft a law creating the new Muslim-administered region.

The 11,000-strong rebel army will be deactivated gradually, the agreement says.

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