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MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines' largest Muslim rebel group said Monday a peace accord it's trying to implement with the government is "the best antidote" for violent extremism exemplified by a bloody siege of southern Marawi city by Islamic State group-aligned militants.
Government and rebel representatives submitted a new draft law to President Rodrigo Duterte which aims to establish a more powerful Muslim autonomous region in the country's south under a 2014 peace deal that stalled in Congress under his predecessor.
"This is the best antidote to the violent extremism that has wrought havoc" in many Muslim areas, Moro Islamic Liberation Front Vice Chairman Ghazali Jaafar said during the presentation of the proposed autonomy bill to Duterte at the presidential palace in Manila.
Once established, the autonomous government, to be called Bangsamoro, "would be at the forefront of keeping public order and safety, dispensing justice within the bounds of law and addressing the basic requisites of a good life," Jaafar said.
Duterte pledged to back the bill in Congress as long as it adheres to the Philippine Constitution and promotes the plight of minority Muslims.
"I am for this," Duterte said to applause from officials and the insurgents, who came in business suits. "Within the context of the Republic of the Philippines there shall be a Bangsamoro country."
The rebels, who dropped their secessionist bid in exchange for broader autonomy, signed a pact with the government to establish a region with more powers and funding for minority Muslims in the south of the predominantly Roman Catholic nation and end a decades-long rebellion.
The conflict has left about 150,000 people dead and stunted development in the resource-rich but poverty-wracked region.
The peace pact would have been a major legacy of Duterte's predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, but the legislation stalled in Congress in 2015 after some rebels from the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front became entangled in fighting that killed 44 police commandos during an anti-terrorism raid in southern Mamasapano town.
The commandos managed to kill top Malaysian terror suspect Zulkifli bin Hir, who had long been wanted by the United States, but the large number of police deaths sparked public outrage and prompted lawmakers to stall passage of the autonomy bill.
Rebel leader Al Haj Murad Ebrahim said amid growing frustration among Muslims over the bill's failed passage, extremist groups in the south emerged.
"These misguided people have filled the vacuum created by our failure to enact the basic law and fed into the frustration of our people," Murad said at the ceremony, which was attended by leaders of the Senate and House of Representatives.
"Today, we watch with utter disgust at the destruction that violent extremism has inflicted in the city of Marawi," Murad said.
Irene Santiago, a government official dealing with the rebels, said public and congressional support for the Muslim autonomy bill is crucial. "The dangers are staring at us in the face," she said.
Officials say more than 550 people, including 411 militants, have been killed in nearly two months of fighting in Marawi, a bastion of Islamic faith in the south.
On Sunday, troops cleared 50 more buildings and houses after clashes that left eight militants and two soldiers dead, military chief of staff Gen. Eduardo Ano told reporters.
Troops are bracing for a "final push to really break their line and finally clear the whole area of Marawi," Ano said, adding that "the battleground is now down to less than a square kilometer area."
Duterte is expected to announce this week whether he will extend a 60-day declaration of martial law in the southern region to deal with the Marawi insurrection, the most serious security crisis he has faced since assuming power in June last year.
Associated Press writer Teresa Cerojano contributed to this report.