The largest Muslim rebel group in the Philippines says it is doubtful whether a peace deal can be signed this year because some tough issues, like the size of a proposed Muslim homeland, may require more time. A final peace agreement would end a conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people over four decades.
The Philippine government has long said it hopes to reach an agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or M.I.L.F., before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, in mid-September. This week a spokesman confirmed that the government remains highly optimistic about the target.
However, Mohagher Iqbal, head of the M.I.L.F. peace talks panel, says the deadline will be hard to meet.
"Well, it is difficult to keep the timeline because as we go on with our peace process we have encountered tough issues, for instance the issue of territory, the issues of resources, are too tough issues to hurdle between the parties," said Iqbal.
Iqbal doubts whether a deal can be signed this year and says territory is the key sticking point. He says the M.I.L.F. wants a larger area than the government is offering.
Although Muslims claim Mindanao in the southern Philippines as their ancestral home, much of the area came under the control of Christian settlers in the past century, prompting conflicts. The Philippines is predominantly Roman Catholic.
The allocation of resources is another sticking point in the negotiations. Mindanao is one of the poorest areas in the Philippines but it does have significant mineral deposits, including copper, gold and oil. The Australian mining firm Indophil, which is conducting feasibility studies into the Tampakan site in Mindanao, says it could be Southeast Asia's largest undeveloped copper field, with hundreds of millions of dollars a year in potential export earnings.
Chief negotiator Iqbal says the M.I.L.F. is still working toward an overall settlement, but as the final goal approaches, the task is harder.
"It's like climbing a mountain," he said. "We have already negotiated all the minor hills and mountains but we are approaching the zenith of the mountain so we expect rough and hard bargaining."
Both sides have long said that the peace talks are a major undertaking. In an interview earlier this year, a member of the government peace panel, retired general Rodolfo Garcia, summed it up this way.
"I don't say it is going to be easy sailing. There is a lot of hardball negotiation is going to take place in the future talks," he said. "But I am quite confident that at no other time do the chances of peace have a better chance of being a reality than now."
In the 1990s the Philippine government reached a peace agreement with another rebel group, the Moro National Liberation Front, giving Mindanao's Muslim region considerable autonomy. However, the M.I.L.F split from that group saying the deal was inadequate. The United States has praised Manila for its negotiations with the rebels over the years and has also supplied military aid to help the government fight terrorist groups.