Philippine Muslim peace deal to be inked 'end of March'

PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia - The Philippine government and Muslim rebels will sign a peace deal to end one of Asia's longest and deadliest insurgencies "by the end of March", Malaysia's prime minister said Friday after meeting his Filipino counterpart.

Prime Minister Najib Razak said President Benigno Aquino invited him to witness the ceremony when "the comprehensive agreement is due to be signed by the end of March".

An official in the office of Aquino's adviser on the peace negotiations confirmed the signing was targeted for the end of next month though no exact date has been set.

"The successful conclusion of the Mindanao peace process... makes possible the empowerment of all the peoples of Mindanao," Aquino told reporters referring to the southern Philippine state where a decades-long rebellion has killed more than 150,000, mostly civilians.

Aquino was speaking to reporters in Malaysia's administrative capital Putrajaya on his first visit to the neighbouring country.

The Philippine government and the 12,000-member Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) completed negotiations last month for a power-sharing arrangement with the nation's Muslim minority in the south.

Muslim-majority Malaysia hosted the negotiations.

The deal aims to end an insurgency that began in the 1970s, killed tens of thousands and left large parts of the fertile southern Philippines mired in violence-plagued poverty.

But even Aquino's peace chiefs have warned that the toughest stages, including implementing the deal, are yet to come after 18 years of stop-start negotiations.

They also include stamping out threats from renegade guerrillas and getting the support of hostile politicians and the nation's highest court.