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Philippine Muslim Separatist Group Signs Cease-Fire Accord with President

The second largest Philippine Muslim separatist group has signed a cease-fire accord with the government of President Gloria Arroyo. The cease-fire is seen as a major step toward ending 30 years of bloody rebellion in the southern Philippines.

The long-awaited cease-fire became reality Tuesday after two weeks of intense negotiations in Malaysia between Philippine government officials and the leaders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

The accord was supposed to have been signed Monday but was postponed at the last minute reportedly over key security details.

The signed cease-fire documents were then presented to Philippine President Gloria Arroyo who had arrived in Malaysia for a meeting with Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Malaysia is currently the venue for the on-going peace talks between the two sides.

Ms. Arroyo told reporters that reaching a lasting peace accord with Muslim separatists is critical to the development of the southern Philippines.

For three decades, the MILF waged a rebellion in the area demanding a separate Muslim homeland in the predominately Catholic country. The fighting has killed an estimated 120,000 people and has left the southern Philippines one of the poorest regions in the country.

Philippine political expert Patricio Abinales says he believes the MILF laid down its arms having grown weary of a rebellion that has so far yielded very little result. "I think the MILF has realized that it could not win the war. It could not expand its territory, the really small territory it controlled," Abinales said. On Friday, the MILF reached a separate unity agreement with the largest Muslim group, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). The move was significant in that it bridged a 23-year split between the two factions and signaled the more militant MILF's willingness to negotiate for autonomy.

The larger MNLF group made peace with the government five years ago in exchange for more political autonomy. The MILF flatly rejected the idea at the time.

The cease-fire means the Abu Sayyaf is the only Muslim group still fighting for independence in the Philippines. But President Arroyo has ruled out negotiating with them saying they are merely bandits and not a legitimate group.