Page last updated at 11:13 GMT, Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Philippines and rebels 'push for 2010 peace deal'

Philippine government negotiator Rafael Seguis (L) with Moro Islamic Liberation Front negotiator Mohagher Iqbal in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - 9 December 2009
Negotiators for the two sides met in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

The Philippine government and Muslim separatist rebels hope to reach a peace deal by April next year, a Malaysian facilitator has said.

Malaysia is brokering talks between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or Milf.

Earlier talks to end the group's decades-long insurgency in the south of the country collapsed 16 months ago.

At least 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict and two million people forced into refugee camps.

"We have agreed to begin negotiations on a comprehensive compact," said the Malaysian official brokering the talks, Othman Abdul Razak.

"We hope to sign probably by the end of the first quarter of next year, by March or early April."

He said the two sides had agreed to revive an International Monitoring Team (IMT) of ceasefire observers and an ad hoc joint action group which would try to isolate Muslim militants from criminal groups in rebel-controlled areas.

'Limited timeline'

The two bodies pulled out more than a year ago after violence escalated in Muslim areas in the south following a Supreme Court ruling that stopped a deal between Manila and the Milf that expanded an autonomous Muslim region.

Map of Philippines

Non-Muslims in the region objected that the deal posed a threat to their land ownership.

Analysts note that although it is often described in religious terms - pitting Muslims against a Catholic-dominant majority - the conflict has been focused on ownership of resource-rich land.

Muslims make up about 5% of the mainly Catholic Philippines and have long felt marginalised.

The question now is if the Philippines government will be able to implement any future deal - with just weeks before the planned agreement and the end of current President Gloria Arroyo's term after May's elections next year.

"The timeline for us to achieve this is very limited... we will do the best we can and God willing, we will achieve something," said Rafael Seguis, head negotiator for the Philippine government.

The MNLF and the Milf have been fighting for greater autonomy in the south for four decades. Back in 1996, then-President Fidel Ramos reached a peace deal with the MNLF (Moro National Liberation Front).

Negotiations resumed under President Arroyo in 2001.

Philippines soldiers battle MILF rebels in 2000
The deal seeks to put an end to a conflict that goes back decades

In the earlier negotiations, a Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain had been drawn up, extending the land area to be administered by autonomous Muslim leaders. Mediators had helped maintain a ceasefire.

The Supreme Court ruling against the deal appeared to be a response to virulent protests by Christian communities in areas of Mindanao that the agreement would convert into Muslim-controlled lands.

Fighting resumed, with analysts saying at the time that President Arroyo had failed to reassure all those likely to be affected by the deal, and this lack of leadership had spelled the death of the deal.

More than 1,000 people were killed and nearly 750,000 people were displaced by fighting between security forces and Muslim rebels from August 2008 until July this year.

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