Philippines, Muslim separatists say they will resume peace talks in Malaysia

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Philippines, Muslim rebels to resume peace talks

MANILA, Philippines — The Philippine government and Muslim separatist rebels said they will resume peace talks in Malaysia next week after they agreed to the composition of an international monitoring group.

Chief government negotiator Rafael Seguis and his counterpart, Mohagher Iqbal of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, said in a joint statement Wednesday the formation of the International Contact Group “clears the way for the formal resumption of the peace talks.”

The two sides agreed to resume peace negotiations in Kuala Lumpur on Dec. 8-9, the statement said.

The rebels have been fighting for Muslim self-rule for decades in Mindanao, the southern homeland of minority Muslims in the largely Roman Catholic Philippines. It is the biggest of at least four Muslim rebel groups that have waged a bloody rebellion in the volatile south.

Negotiations collapsed in August last year when the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a preliminary accord on an expanded Muslim autonomous region.

A deadly rampage by three rebel commanders upset by the stalled deal sparked months of clashes. The fighting killed hundreds and displaced as many as 750,000 people.

The fighting in the marshy heartland of Mindanao eased in July, and both sides agreed in September to resume the negotiations.

In an informal meeting in Kuala Lumpur in September, negotiators agreed to set up the International Contact Group, or ICG, to help the two sides “maintain a level of comfort that restores mutual trust” and ensure compliance in any future agreement.

The ICG will initially be composed of Britain, Japan and Turkey plus several international non-governmental groups involved in promoting peace and development in conflict-affected areas. Its first meeting will be held in Manila on Friday, the joint statement said.

In October, the two opposing sides signed an accord pledging not to target civilians and to protect schools, hospitals, religious premises, health and food distribution centers and relief operations. They also agreed not to block the flow of food aid and other relief goods to those displaced in the fighting.

Displaced civilians have borne the brunt of the conflict, which has claimed at least 120,000 lives since the 1970s. About 120,000 civilians displaced in the latest fighting are still in evacuation centers, fearful of returning home.

The revival of the International Monitoring Team of cease-fire observers, which includes troops from Libya, Brunei and Malaysia, is the “main agenda” of next week’s meeting between the government and rebel negotiators, Iqbal said.

The two sides also will renew an agreement in which the rebels have committed to help government forces interdict kidnap gangs active in the southern Philippines, he said.

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