Philippines assures Muslim rebels of autonomy by January

MANILA Fri Jun 27, 2014 3:18am EDT

Philippine President Benigno Aquino attends the first session of the ASEAN-Japan Commemorative Summit Meeting at the state guest house in Tokyo December 14, 2013.  REUTERS/Toru Hanai

Philippine President Benigno Aquino attends the first session of the ASEAN-Japan Commemorative Summit Meeting at the state guest house in Tokyo December 14, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Toru Hanai

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MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine President Benigno Aquino assured the country's largest Muslim rebel group on Friday that a new autonomous government will be in place by January 2015 in the south, a commitment made under a peace accord signed this year.

The largely Roman Catholic Philippines signed an agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in March ending nearly five decades of conflict that has killed more than 120,000 people, displaced two million and stunted growth in the resource-rich region.

Under the pact, the MILF agreed to disband its guerrilla force, surrender weapons and rebuild communities while the government gives them wider powers to control their economy and culture.

"All steps will be done that they can sit already in office by January 2015," Aquino told reporters in the central province of Iloilo, where he inaugurated some infrastructure projects.

Ghadzali Jaafar, MILF's vice chairman for political affairs, had said the group was worried that the government was dragging its feet in implementing the accord.

It took almost 17 years for the Philippines to reach a deal with MILF in negotiations brokered by Malaysia. Manila also signed a deal with another Muslim rebel faction in 1996.

But it has refused to negotiate with the small and more violent Abu Sayyaf, blamed for beheadings, bombings and kidnappings in the south, labeling them terrorists.

(Reporting By Manuel Mogato; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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