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Philippine Muslims restart peace talks in Malaysia

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

Peace talks have resumed between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a separatist group from the south of the country.

The talks are being held in Malaysia, which had brokered talks which collapsed 16 months ago.

An International Contact Group including Japan, the UK and Turkey has been formed to join the talks.

Earlier peace talks collapsed when a promised agreement was quashed by a Philippines court.

"The formation of the ICG finally clears the way for the formal resumption of the peace talks," said a statement signed by the chief negotiators of the two sides, released last week.

Solution elusive

Rafael Seguis, the government's top negotiator, said in an opening statement in Kuala Lumpur that the process was "now formally back on track".

"I believe - and I am sure that we all share this optimism - that we will be able to forge a peace settlement that is just, lasting, acceptable, and truly beneficial to the Muslim Filipinos in Mindanao, and to the entire Filipino people," he said.

"But the task ahead of us is still great. The challenges we have to surmount remain high. There is a lot of work to do."

Mohagher Iqbal, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front's (Milf) chief negotiator, told Reuters by phone from his base on the southern island of Mindanao that he was confident a final solution to the conflict can be reached before President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo steps down in June.

He said the two sides would negotiate to reconstitute an International Monitoring Team (IMT) and reactivate an ad hoc joint action group which would try to isolate Muslim militants from criminal groups in rebel-controlled areas.

The IMT and ad hoc joint action group 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.

President Arroyo's inability to implement an agreement her government had signed severely dampened hopes of any peace settlement while she remains in office.

The Milf has been fighting off and on for decades for autonomy from the Philippine government.

Although often described in religious terms, pitching Muslims against a Catholic-dominant majority, analysts note that the conflict has been focused on ownership of resource-rich land.

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

Efforts have been underway for 12 years to end a conflict that has killed at least 100,000 people and forced 2m residents into large refugee camps.



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