Preliminary peace agreement reached

Philippine president Benigno Aquino III said his government has reached a preliminary peace agreement with the country's largest Muslim rebel group in a major breakthrough toward ending a decades-long insurgency.

Mr Aquino described the deal in a nationally televised announcement as a road map for establishing a new autonomous region to be administered by minority Muslims in the predominantly Catholic nation's south.

It follows marathon negotiations between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Malaysia, which is brokering the talks.

The agreement is expected to be signed in a few days in Manila.

It spells out the general principles on major issues, including the extent of power, revenues and territory of the Muslim region. If all goes well, a final peace deal could be reached by 2016.

"This framework agreement paves the way for final and enduring peace in Mindanao," Mr Aquino said, referring to the Philippines' main southern region and the homeland of the country's Muslims.

"This means that the hands that once held rifles will be put to use tilling land, selling produce, manning work stations and opening doorways of opportunity."

He cautioned, however, that "the work does not end here".

"There are still details both sides must thresh out," he said.

The deal marks the most significant progress in 15 years of negotiations with the 11,000-strong Moro group on ending an uprising that has left more than 120,000 people dead and held back development in the south. Western governments have long worried that rebel strongholds could become breeding grounds for al Qaida-affiliated extremists.