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Philippines, Muslim rebels clear last peace deal hurdle

The Philippine government said on Saturday they had cleared a last hurdle in long-running peace negotiations with Muslim rebels aimed at ending a deadly decades-old insurgency in the country's south.

KUALA LUMPUR: The Philippine government and Muslim rebels said Saturday they had cleared the last hurdle in long-running peace negotiations aimed at ending a deadly decades-old insurgency in the country's south

President Benigno Aquino hopes to secure a final peace settlement before leaving office in mid-2016 to end the rebellion by Muslim groups, which has left 150,000 people dead.

Negotiators met from Wednesday on the outskirts of Malaysia's capital Kuala Lumpur to tackle a "normalisation" deal detailing how the rebels will hand over their weapons and the creation of a security force to police what would be a self-ruled Muslim area.

The deal is the last of four power-sharing accords that must be agreed between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels, before a final peace deal can be signed.

Chief government negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer said both sides had completed discussions on the "normalisation" deal, marking the "end of a process, which is the formal negotiations".

"The peace process... is aimed to really bring about a good foundation for sustainable peace and development in Mindanao (in southern Philippines) and in that sense we consider this a very important development," Ferrer told reporters.

She added "the bigger challenge of implementation" lay ahead with the target "to substantially complete everything by the end of this administration in 2016".

MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal said a final peace deal, formally ending the negotiations, was expected to be signed "very soon" to pave the way for peace.

"From A to Z it has been full of challenges. But with the cooperation and determination of all parties... I think no obstacles will stand in the way, God willing," he told reporters.

Neither Ferrer nor Iqbal gave details of how MILF would decommission its 12,000-strong armed forces, with Ferrer saying it would be a "gradual and phased process".

"For peace, real peace in Mindanao, we have to decommission our forces," Iqbal said. "There is no element of surrender."

Aquino warned last month that disarming the MILF would be a "heavy and contentious" issue.

Apart from the MILF, many other armed groups operate in the south, including former rebels who have resorted to banditry and terrorism.

The insurgency, which began in the 1970s, has left parts of the southern Philippines mired in deep poverty and instability.

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