Philippine leader pledges Muslim autonomy law by January

MANILA - Philippine President Benigno Aquino vowed Friday to deliver self-rule to minority Muslims by January 2015, in line with a peace treaty signed with its largest rebel group.

"We're hoping that all the steps will be finished (so) that they can take position by January of 2015," he told reporters.

The pledge followed Aquino's surprise meeting in Japan on Tuesday with Murad Ebrahim, the country's top Muslim rebel, to address growing concerns over delays in implementing the peace deal signed in March.

The pact made Murad's Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the government partners in a plan to pass a law creating the autonomous region by mid-2016, when Aquino is required by the constitution to stand down.

Muslim rebels have been battling for independence or autonomy in the southern islands of the mainly Catholic Philippines since the 1970s, with the conflict claiming tens of thousands of lives.

A commission composed of rebel and government nominees drafted a proposed "basic law" for the autonomous region, and it was submitted to Aquino in April as part of a timeframe to have Congress pass it by June.

However, Aquino said Friday: "There's a need to further refine the language so that it really states a meeting of the minds of both parties." Aquino said he and Murad reviewed the "broad strokes on how to come up with the basic law that will ensure swift passage in Congress," during a 10-minute meeting on the sidelines of a Hiroshima peace conference.

He said their representatives are to meet again next week to thrash out the fine print of the document before Aquino is to submit it to Congress when it resumes sessions in late July.

Early passage will allow Aquino to name an MILF-led, 15-member "transition authority" that will temporarily lead the autonomous region until its residents vote for a regional assembly in May 2016.

This would give the transition team "time to demonstrate its abilities", he said.

The MILF, with 10,000 armed followers, is the biggest rebel group and its signing of the accord has raised hopes of an enduring peace in the south, despite other breakaway groups still vowing to fight.

The Hiroshima meeting was the second between Aquino and Murad in Japan since a 2011 encounter that built momentum in the peace process.