MANILA - The Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) have signed a historic pact to end one of Asia's longest and deadliest insurgencies, though fears remain that splinter rebel groups may derail the fragile peace.
"What is being presented before us now is a path that can lead to a permanent change in the status quo in Muslim Mindanao," said Philippine President Benigno Aquino at the ceremony here on Thursday.
The five-page "Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (Muslim nation)" was signed by teams led by chief government negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer and MILF panel chairman Mohagher Iqbal.
MILF chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim said the agreement "finally brings with it the restoration of the identity, powers and resources of the Bangsamoro. These three things, which have been ours since time immemorial and which were unjustly taken by colonisation and occupation, are now returned to us".
The pact, which Malaysia helped broker, concludes 17 years of negotiations spanning five Philippine presidents and three Malaysian prime ministers.
It aims to end a war that has torn Mindanao for more than 40 years and claimed over 150,000 lives, a conflict that has spread to Malaysia's shores as refugees from Mindanao seek shelter in Malaysia's Sabah state.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who led hundreds of foreign dignitaries as witnesses, called the deal "a momentous act of courage".
"Today, we turn to face the light," he said. "Today belongs to the Philippines and the people of the Bangsamoro."
The MILF is the largest of the Muslim rebel groups battling for independence in Mindanao - which they regard as their ancestral homeland - to sign a peace accord. The military estimates that it has about 12,000 fighters.
A pact signed by the rival Moro National Liberation Front in 1996 did not last and that group remains a threat, along with MILF splinter groups such as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.
Malaysia played a pivotal role in the peace process for the new deal. In 2012, it hosted talks that led to a "framework peace agreement" that underpinned the Bangsamoro agreement.
Kuala Lumpur wants peace in Mindanao because of the large population of Filipinos driven to Sabah by the Mindanao conflict.
Malaysia has also had to wrestle with a standing claim of a Muslim royal clan in Sulu province in Mindanao over Sabah state. In February and March last year, dozens died when a band of armed men calling themselves the "Royal Army of Sulu" laid siege to Lahad Datu, a village in Sabah.