MANILA - In a move towards ending a decades-long conflict, the Philippine government announced a peace deal with the country's largest Muslim group on Sunday, October 7, to establish a Muslim homeland in the south.
"This framework agreement paves the way for a final and enduring peace in Mindanao," President Benigno Aquino said in a nationally televised address cited by Reuters.
"It brings all former secessionist groups into the fold. No longer does the Moro Islamic Liberation Front aspire for a separate state."
The deal begins a roadmap to create a new autonomous region in the Muslim-majority south.
The new region will be called Bangsamoro -- the term for those who are native to the region.
It is expected to include five provinces under the existing autonomous region plus parts of Lanao del Norte and North Cotabato provinces.
Presidential peace adviser Teresita Quintos-Deles said the areas to be added had previously voted to be part of the autonomous region.
She added the southern cities of Isabela and Cotabato may also be covered by the new entity.
The Muslim area will gain powers such as the right to impose taxes to cut central government subsidies, a bigger share in revenues from natural resources and a more active role in internal security.
But the Philippine government will continue to hold exclusive powers of defense and security, foreign policy, monetary policy, and citizenship and naturalization.
Details of the final peace agreement still need to be thrashed out before the presidential election in 2016.
A final agreement would have to be approved by a plebiscite.
"This framework agreement is about rising above our prejudices, President Aquino said.
It is about casting aside the distrust and myopia that has the plagued efforts of the past.
MILF, the country's biggest Muslim group, has been struggling for an independent state in the mineral-rich southern region of Mindanao for some four decades now.
More than 120,000 people have been killed since the conflict erupted in the late 1960s.
Mindanao, the birthplace of Islam in the Philippines, is home to more than 5 million Muslims.
Muslims make up nearly 8 percent of the total populace in the Philippines, which Islam reached in the 13th century about 200 years before Christianity.
Filipino Muslims welcomed the government announcement as the beginning of peace.
"We are happy and we thank the president for this," MILF vice chairman for political affairs Ghazali Jaafar told Agence France-Presse (AFP) by phone.
He, however, insisted that the agreement reached over the weekend in Malaysia was just a "roadmap".
He stressed that there had been no deal yet on significant issues such as the extent of the territory to be included in the new semi-autonomous region.
In 2008, a peace deal between MILF and the government was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, setting off rebel attacks and a fierce military offensive that displaced 750,000 people.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hailed the peace agreement "a testament to the commitment of all sides for a peaceful resolution" to the conflict.
"The next steps will be to ensure that the framework agreement is fully implemented," she said in a statement cited by AFP.
The British government said more still needs to be done for achieving peace in the Philippines."One of the most relevant lessons at this point is to recognize that even after an agreement it won't all be plain sailing, and there will still be challenges," British envoy Stephen Lillie said in a statement.