Philippine president travels to Muslim rebel stronghold, sees final peace deal in March

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said Monday a final peace agreement with Muslim rebels may be signed next month.

"I think we're very, very close to agreements on all points," he told a news conference at a Muslim rebel stronghold in the country's south, where he traveled to launch projects jointly with the guerrillas aimed at improving life in the area and bolstering the prospects of a peace deal.

Aquino said he did not want to give deadlines to the consensual process but said they believe the comprehensive agreement can be signed "earlier than the end of March."

Hundreds of soldiers, police and Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighters guarded the ceremony in Sultan Kudarat town in Maguindanao province, which has a recent history of major battles between troops and insurgents, who were at times suspected to have been aided by al-Qaida-linked extremists.

Under the new project, Aquino's government is pledging to provide health insurance, assistance in finding jobs and funding for schools for rebel families.

The 11,000-strong Moro rebel group had been waging a rebellion for self-rule in the south. It signed a preliminary peace agreement with the government on Oct. 15 in a major breakthrough toward ending one of Asia's longest-running insurgencies.

The accord grants minority Muslims in the south broad autonomy in exchange for ending more than 40 years of violence that has killed tens of thousands of people and held back progress in the resource-rich but poverty-wracked region. It creates a roadmap for a final peace settlement.

Both sides have ongoing negotiations on the extent of power, revenues and wealth to be granted to the new southern Muslim autonomous region to be called Bangsamoro. The rebels have also agreed to dismantle their armed guerrilla forces, possibly with the help of international experts, under an arrangement both sides are to negotiate.