The Philippine government and the country's largest Muslim rebel group have cleared a last hurdle in long-running peace negotiations aimed at ending a deadly decades-old insurgency in the country's south.
The accord between Philippine government negotiators and the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front calls for Muslim self-rule in parts of the south in exchange for the deactivation of the rebel force. The military presence in the proposed autonomous region would be restricted.
Much will depend on how the accord is enforced, in particular whether the 11,000-strong rebel forces are able to maintain security in areas that would come under their control. At least four other, smaller Muslim rebel groups are still fighting Manila's rule in the southern Mindanao region, and could act as spoilers to the deal.
Officials from both sides announced the conclusion of talks in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, which has brokered the years-long negotiations. The accord and three other pacts signed last year make up a final peace agreement that is to be signed in the Philippine capital, Manila, possibly next month, presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said.
"This will give the just and lasting peace that our brothers in Mindanao are seeking," said Lacierda, referring to the volatile southern region and homeland of minority Muslims in the predominantly Catholic nation.
Government negotiators, some with tears in their eyes, embraced each other after the talks ended. Chief government negotiator Miriam Ferrer hailed the progress and said "good luck to everyone on the next stage".
Yesterday's accord is the most significant step yet taken during 13 years of on-and-off negotiations with the Moro fighters to tame a tenacious insurgency that has left more than 120,000 people dead and derailed development in Muslim-populated southern regions that are among the most destitute in the Philippines.
The United States and other Western governments have supported the talks. Under the peace deal, the Moro insurgents agreed to end violence in exchange for broader autonomy.
Despite the milestone, both the government and the rebels acknowledged that violence would not end overnight in a region that has long grappled with a volatile mix of crushing poverty, huge numbers of illegal firearms, clan wars and weak law enforcement.