Philippines' Aquino to visit rebel stronghold

Philippine President Benigno Aquino will next week make a historic visit to the stronghold of the country's main Muslim rebel force in an effort to push forward peace talks, his office said on Thursday.

Aquino's trip on Monday to the outskirts of the 12,000-member Moro Islamic Liberation Front's (MILF's) main base in the country's south will be the first peace mission there by a president since the insurgency began in the 1970s.

Aquino and MILF chairman Murad Ebrahim will meet as they witness the launch of a social welfare project for mainly Muslim residents of communities where the rebels exert an influence, Aquino spokesman Ricky Carandang told AFP.

"It's not a formal meeting, but their presence will underscore the commitment and optimism that both sides have that a final resolution to the peace process will be achieved," he said.

"The launch of the social programmes will show concrete benefits of peace."

At the launch, health insurance cards will be distributed to residents, emergency jobs offered to adults and scholarships given to their children, Aquino's office said.

The MILF has been fighting since the 1970s for independence in Mindanao, the southern third of the mainly Catholic Philippines that the country's Muslim minority claim as their ancestral homeland.

An estimated 150,000 people have died in the conflict.

The MILF signed a "framework agreement" with Aquino's government in October last year committing both sides to form a new autonomous entity on Mindanao by 2016, when the president ends his six-year term.

The MILF vowed to give up its quest for an independent homeland in exchange for significant power and wealth-sharing in a new autonomous region.

Negotiators from both sides have been meeting in neighbouring Malaysia to thrash out what they described as contentious items in the plan.

Cabinet secretary Jose Almendras said Monday's event would be held at an MILF-run school that residents say is about half a kilometre (a third of a mile) from the main gate of the rebels' headquarters, Camp Darapanan.

"It's very close to the MILF camp," Almendras said.

MILF spokesman Mike Pasigan welcomed the imminent launch of the social welfare project.

"The programme will further strengthen the collaboration between the government and the MILF as we build on the gains of the peace process," he said in a statement.

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