- Wealth-sharing deal viewed as key step forward in quest for peace with Muslim rebels
- Muslims will get a 75% share of income derived from the exploitation of minerals
- Rebels have been fighting for independence from the Philippines for years
- Peace process to create a new autonomous region administered by Muslims
Muslim rebel leaders in the Philippines' troubled south will get access to the lion's share of the region's natural resources under a new agreement reached in peace talks with the government.
The wealth-sharing deal, signed on Sunday after eight months of talks, is viewed as a key step forward in the quest for peace with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which has fought for decades to set up an independent Islamic state on the resource-rich island of Mindanao.
Progress in the peace process had stalled in the wake of a landmark treaty signed in October last year, which sought to put an end to a conflict that has left tens of thousands dead.
"For the benefit of Bangsamoro and the whole country, the government and the MILF once more demonstrated that they are invested in the process and will persevere in order to forge lasting peace in Mindanao, Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, the government's chief negotiator said in a statement.
The October agreement laid out the groundwork for a new autonomous region called Bangsamoro that will be administered by Muslims in Mindanao.
The Philippines is a predominantly Catholic country but 5% of its population is Muslim, according to the CIA World Factbook.
Under the terms of the wealth-sharing deal, Muslims will get a 75% share of income derived from the exploitation of metallic minerals in the area -- reported to include gold and copper.
They will also receive 75% of tax revenue, while any income derived from fossil fuels like petroleum, natural gas and coal will be split 50-50 with the central government in Manila.
An end to the conflict could help bring investors to the region, which is reported to have untapped mineral deposits worth $312 billion.
"Wealth creation is important for the operation of the Bangsamoro, considering that the Bangsamoro territory is among the most underdeveloped in the Philippines due to the decades-old conflict," the statement added.
However, hurdles remain in President Benigno Aquino's plan to achieve lasting peace in the region by 2016 when his term ends.
Agreements have yet to be reached on power-sharing and normalization -- which means giving up arms. A report published in June by the International Crisis Group warned that the peace process needed to find ways to support insurgents as they build normal, civilian lives.
It estimates that the MILF has 11,000 to 12,000 fighters.
"The government has a poor track record of implementing peace agreements and the MILF is understandably wary of weakening its formidable firepower too soon," the report said.
"Secondly, even if it did hand over some guns, these are unlikely to be destroyed, as per international best practice; military and police would rather keep the good ones, and there is a well-documented history of leakage into the black market from government," it added.