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Philippine Government Hopeful About Peace with Muslim Rebels


A Philippine official says as a result of successful discussions a peace agreement could be signed early next year with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the main Muslim rebel group on the southern island of Mindanao.

Rene Sarmiento, of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process, says international support for the peace talks, which are being mediated by Malaysia, has been a big factor in their success.

"The support of Malaysia, of Libya, of Brunei [is] helping the process to move forward," he said. " And the fact that the cease-fire is in place in Mindanao for many months now without skirmishes, I think are the impetus of the moving forward of this peace process."

Mr. Sarmiento says the next round of talks is set for December, and an agreement could follow in the first quarter of 2006. He was speaking at a conference launching the Philippine Human Development Report, published in cooperation with the U.N. Development Program, which focuses on the themes of peace and human security.

The report says that out of 77 provinces in the Philippines, four of the five lowest-ranked on the Human Development Index are in Mindanao, the largest of the southern islands and home to most of the country's Muslim citizens. The index measures life expectancy, education, and income.

One draft proposal under discussion in the peace talks is for the rebel areas in the south to exercise greater control in forming the local government and tax systems.

Another crucial issue is "ancestral rights" - a reference to land, water, and mineral resources the rebels claim in the territory.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front is the main Muslim rebel group in the southern Philippines and has waged a long-standing separatist insurgency on Mindanao island.

The conflict has stunted economic development, discouraged foreign investment and killed more than 100,000 people during the past three decades.

In the 1990s the Philippine government reached a peace agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front, granting much of Mindanao considerable autonomy. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front split from that group and argues that the deal with the government is inadequate.

The Philippines also suffers from a long conflict with communist rebels, spearheaded by the New People's Army.

The speaker of the Philippine House, Jose de Venecia, says it is now time to make peace with the communists as well.

"I think we should be able to sign a final peace agreement with the New People's Army and the NDF [National Democratic Front of the Philippines] and the Communist Party of the Philippines because we are tired of bloodshed and fighting and violence for the last more than 35 years," said Mr. De Venecia.

Mr. De Venecia gave no details of his proposal. Peace talks with the communists broke down late last year.

The United States has over the years provided military aid and training to help the Philippine government fight rebel groups on its territory.

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