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Last Updated: Friday, 18 July, 2003, 09:56 GMT 10:56 UK
Manila signs ceasefire with MILF
Philippine troops
Troops have regularly clashed with MILF rebels
The Philippines Government says it has signed a ceasefire agreement with the country's largest Muslim separatist group, ahead of planned peace talks in Malaysia.

Negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) could re-open as early as next week, the government said.

It also promised to drop arrest warrants against MILF leaders, in order to pave the way for talks to resume.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo sounded optimistic on Friday as she announced the mutual cessation of hostilities between the two sides, despite the fact that many previous ceasefire deals have come to nothing.

"I ask our people to give peace a chance," she said.

"Peace is at hand. We shall forge the political will to preserve it for all generations of Filipinos."

Ms Arroyo also thanked Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad "for his sincere and abiding support" to the peace process in the Philippines, and for offering to host the talks.

Malaysia is also expected to deploy ceasefire observers in the southern island of Mindanao, where most of the MILF rebels are based.

The 12,500-member group is one of several Islamic organisations campaigning for a separate state in the south of the largely Roman Catholic Philippines.

There have been frequent skirmishes between the two sides since the MILF was formed in 1978.

The government has frequently accused the rebels of being behind numerous bomb attacks in the southern Philippines, as well as providing sanctuary for foreign "terrorists" linked to Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda network.

Attacks blamed on the rebels have killed at least 100 people this year.

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