MANILA (UPDATED) - The leaders of the Philippines' biggest Muslim rebel group arrived in Manila on Sunday for a historic visit aimed at ending one of Asia's longest and deadliest insurgencies.
Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) chief Murad Ebrahim and other senior rebel figures emerged from their remote bases in the country's south to oversee the signing of an accord on Monday that outlines a roadmap for peace by 2016.
The accord, announced by President Benigno Aquino a week ago, has won applause from foreign governments and the United Nations as a rare chance to end a rebellion that has killed an estimated 150,000 people since the 1970s.
However rank-and-file soldiers of the 12,000-strong MILF, as well as the groups's leaders and independent security analysts, have warned that many obstacles could still derail the peace process.
Ebrahim, an ageing warrior in his 60s who has spent most of his life in the southern Philippine region of Mindanao, is making his first official trip as MILF leader to Manila.
The signing will be at the presidential palace, so Ebrahim will also become the first MILF chief to get inside the country's inner sanctum of power.
"We feel honoured to be welcomed in Manila, but I must stress this is just the beginning of the peace journey," Ebrahim's deputy for political affairs, Ghazali Jaafar, told AFP.
Jaafar and other senior MILF officials arrived on a chartered plane in the Philippine capital on Sunday afternoon.
Potentially because of the sensitivities of the visit and security concerns, Ebrahim arrived in secret on a separate plane.
Aquino's chief adviser on the peace process, Teresita Deles, told AFP on Sunday evening that Ebrahim had arrived, but neither she nor the MILF gave any further details.
In a statement shortly after Aquino's announcement on the "framework agreement" that capped 15 years of MILF negotiation efforts, Ebrahim said the deal "lays down the firm foundations of a just and enduring peace formula".
"The forging of the framework agreement, however, does not mean the end of the struggle for it ushers a new and more challenging stage," he said.
Muslim rebel groups have been fighting for full independence or autonomy for four decades in Mindanao, which they consider their ancestral homeland from before Spanish Christians colonised the country in the 1500s.
The fighting has mired large parts of resource-rich Mindanao in poverty, and led to the proliferation of unlicensed guns and political warlords who battle over fiefdoms.
The estimated four to nine million Muslims are now a minority on Mindanao after years of Catholic immigration, but they insist they should be allowed to govern on their own and control Mindanao, which also has fertile farming lands.
The MILF is the biggest and most important remaining rebel group, after the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) signed a peace pact with the government in 1996.
The peace deal with the MNLF led to the creation of an autonomous region that Aquino said was a "failed experiment" that led to corruption and even more poverty.
The document to be signed Monday will outline plans to replace that autonomous region with a new one in which the MILF will hold significant power.
Under the framework, the MILF will drop its bid for independence in exchange for autonomy covering several areas in Mindanao.
A transition panel made up of members from both sides will draft a "basic law" covering the autonomous region to be passed by the nation's parliament by 2015.
The people living in the proposed autonomous region will then need to ratify it in a plebiscite held before 2016, when Aquino is required by the constitution to stand down.
But underscoring the fragile security situation in Mindanao and potential obstacles ahead, the army said Al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf militants shot dead three soldiers in a bid to goad fighting ahead of the deal signing.
The Abu Sayyaf is blamed for the country's worst terrorist attacks even though it is believed to have only a few hundred armed followers. It is not included in the peace process.
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