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Philippines' Aquino visits rebel stronghold

Benigno Aquino (right) talks with Murad Ebrahim during a visit to Mindanao, on February 11, 2013
This handout photo taken and released by Malacanang Photo Bureau (MPB) shows Philippine President Benigno Aquino (right) talking with Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) chief Murad Ebrahim during a visit to the rebels stronghold in Sultan Kudarat, on th

Philippine President Benigno Aquino paid a historic visit Monday to Muslim rebel territory in a bid to speed up efforts to end one of Asia's longest and deadliest insurgencies.

Four months after his government agreed on a roadmap with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front for a final peace deal by 2016, Aquino travelled to the insurgents' stronghold in the far south as a confidence-building measure.

"We have just three years and four months left. We have to speed up everything we are doing now to make this (peace) permanent," Aquino said on a stage alongside MILF chief Murad Ebrahim just outside the rebels' main base.

The deadline for peace coincides with the end of Aquino's six-year term as president. The constitution limits him to one term and there are concerns that the next president may not be able, or may not want, to pursue the peace agenda.

The 12,000-strong MILF has been fighting since the 1970s for independence in Mindanao, the southern third of the mainly Catholic Philippines that the country's Muslim minority claim as their ancestral homeland.

An estimated 150,000 people have died in the conflict with Muslim rebels, although a ceasefire in place since 2003 has largely held.

In the "framework agreement" signed last October, the MILF said it would give up its quest for independence in exchange for significant power and wealth-sharing in a new autonomous region covering large parts of Mindanao.

Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels man a machine gun on the southern island of Mindanao, on February 11, 2013
Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels man a machine gun near the venue where Philippine President Benigno Aquino will be attending a ceremony as part of his visit to the rebels stronghold in Sultan Kudarat, on the southern island of Mindanao, on Feb

Many of the toughest details have yet to be agreed, and there have been no major breakthroughs in ensuing negotiations between the two sides.

However Aquino expressed confidence that the negotiations would yield significant results within weeks, and that a final peace pact could be achieved by 2016.

"We're very close to agreements on all the points," he said.

The key event on Monday, held just outside the MILF's heavily fortified Camp Darapanan, was the launch of joint development projects seen by both sides as crucial to the peace process.

It was the first peace mission by a president to the MILF's powerbase.

Then-president Joseph Estrada travelled to the area in 2000 but only at a time of heavy fighting, shortly after government troops overran another base that was then the rebels' main camp.

Estrada infamously brought pork and beer to the Muslim areas so government troops could celebrate their victory.

Speaking at Monday's event, Murad said Aquino's trip was a highly symbolic and important boost to the peace process.

"Truly we are humbled by this grand gesture of the president of personally launching several socio-economic projects... on this hallowed ground which has seen many of the battles we have fought," he said.

Murad emphasised the need to bring prosperity to Mindanao, a fertile and resource-rich region that remains one of the country's poorest areas because of the conflict as well as corruption.

"Development is so important... this goal must therefore be the single most important task of this partnership," he said.

The programmes launched on Monday involve education scholarships, expanded health networks and job creation projects.

After the launch of the development projects, Aquino travelled to a military camp to watch a game of football between MILF fighters and government soldiers.

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