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The Philippine government and a group of Muslim rebels involved in an ongoing crisis in the southern island of Mindanao have agreed to a cease-fire in preparation for talks for a peaceful settlement, the country's vice president said late Friday evening.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and Moro National Liberation Front Chairman Nur Misuari struck the agreement, which, however, does not call for the surrender of the rebels on the ground, Vice President Jejomar Binay said.
"There is now an agreement for a peaceful settlement," Binay said in a radio interview.
"I will try to catch a flight tomorrow (Saturday) to Zamboanga City so we can start discussing the details and mechanisms," he added.
About 200 rebels of the pro-independence Moro National Liberation Front raided residential areas of Zamboanga City around midnight Sunday, sparking violence that has left at least 22 people killed, 63 injured and around 25,000 residents displaced.
Authorities said the rebels had initially planned to hoist their flag at the Zamboanga City Hall to declare independence from the Philippine republic, but it was foiled.
The rebels have held hostage some 200 residents, as of Friday evening, preventing military troops from neutralizing them.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino flew Friday to the embattled city, located in the western part of Mindanao, to personally assess the violent standoff.
Aquino called the situation "contained" and said the rebels are surrounded by "overwhelming" forces.
He threatened to use "the entire force of the state" against them "if they endanger the lives all the more of innocent civilians."
Military spokesman Ramon Zagala said the fatalities comprise 15 rebels, five government soldiers and two civilians. He said 19 rebels have either surrendered or were captured.
Aquino appealed to the people of Zamboanga for calm and patience to resolve the standoff without the loss of many lives.
He expressed confidence the crisis will not affect the ongoing peace negotiations between the government and another Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which are in their final stages.
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