Mon, Jul 28, 2008 - Page 4 News List

Philippine negotiations with MILF back on track

AP , MANILA

Philippine government negotiators met the country’s largest Muslim rebel group yesterday to try to break an impasse on territorial rights for Muslims in the volatile south, officials said.

“I am informed that efforts are continuing at this very moment to resolve the difficult issues,” government press secretary Jesus Dureza said. “I am confident we can move forward.”

“I don’t think anyone of the two sides will squander these gains for lasting peace,” he said in Manila as government negotiators returned to Kuala Lumpur yesterday for talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Both sides had hoped to wrap up the talks on an ancestral homeland last week ahead of Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s annual state of the nation address today.

But the talks ended in deadlock on Friday after Manila tried to delay a referendum on enlarging a previous Muslim homeland until after a political agreement was reached.

Muslim separatist rebels walked out of the talks with the Philippine government, saying on Saturday that government negotiators reneged on a previous agreement.

A MILF statement quoted chief rebel negotiator Mohagher Iqbal as saying that it was “illogical and unreasonable to continue with the talks.”

“How can we explain to our people and our commanders in the field the attitude of the government when the [government] panel keeps on tinkering or changing what has already been settled in signed documents?” Iqbal said.

Representatives of the government and MILF agreed last week to expand a Muslim autonomous region in southern Mindanao to include some 712 predominantly Muslim villages and also to hand over to the regional government some state-controlled resources in the southern Philippines.

Both sides met again on Friday in Kuala Lumpur to set a date to sign an agreement on “ancestral domain,” which would identify territory to fall under the Muslim region, lay out the area’s form of government and determine its share of the region’s resources.

A plebiscite would then be held for areas slated to be covered by the expanded Muslim region to determine whether they want to join.

However, on Saturday the rebels said the government had changed its position and now wanted to delay the plebiscite until after the signing of a final peace pact, instead of after the agreement on ancestral domain as they had agreed upon.

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