Mon, Nov 13, 2006 - Page 4 News List

Manila bid to end deadlock with rebels

AP , MANILA

The Philippine government has submitted a proposal to break the deadlock in peace talks with Muslim separatists, the rebels' chief negotiator said yesterday.

Mohagher Iqbal, the head of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front's (MILF) negotiating panel, declined to give details of the two-page proposal he said he received on Friday from his government counterpart, Silvestre Afable.

A disagreement over the size of an area where Filipino Muslims could exercise a measure of control over land, resources and governance halted the latest round of Malaysia-brokered talks on Sept. 6 and 7 in Kuala Lumpur.

"The [new] proposal is quite general and it touches on several issues," Iqbal said.

"What they have stated in their proposal is just a repetition of what we have discussed with the other side," he added.

During the last round of talks in Malaysia, rebel negotiators rejected a government-proposed Muslim area, partly because the offer was subject to future "constitutional processes," which they have contended should not bind the peace process.

Iqbal said the government had "expanded the issues," creating a problem on how to focus on the territorial aspect of the "ancestral domain" claims of minority Muslims in the southern Philippines, which the two sides had been discussing when the talks were snagged.

Iqbal said it would take about a week to consult other members of the rebel panel and eventually the MILF's central committee before they are ready to respond to the proposal, which he also described "as an outline of what they wished to discuss."

He said no timetable has been set for a resumption of the talks, but he expressed hope that they would commence before the end of the year.

"I think that's the best option -- to hold it this year, although we do not expect to finish it," he said.

"I am not optimistic in finalizing the exact agreement on ancestral domain, but maybe we can move forward a little," he added.

Despite the impasse, a cease-fire continues to hold, Iqbal said.

"Both sides are holding their punches," he said.

The MILF, estimated by the military to have 13,000 members with 10,000 firearms, has been fighting for Muslim self-rule in the impoverished southern Mindanao region for decades.

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