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Philippines Hopes for Peace with Muslim Separatists This Year - 2004-04-15

The Philippine government says it hopes to cut a peace deal with Islamic militants within a year even as it admits that some of them may be sheltering terrorists.

The government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or MILF, are to resume talks later this month on finding a way to end a secessionist struggle in the southern Philippines.

The government's top negotiator, Silvestre Afable, says Manila's goal is to reach a deal within a year.

The MILF has been fighting for nearly 30 years to establish an Islamic homeland in Mindanao, where the bulk of the Philippines' Muslim community lives. Talks have made little progress in recent years, with the government accusing MILF radicals of harboring terrorists and the militant group blaming Manila for escalating violence.

But the declaration of a cease-fire last year, the withdrawal of government forces from MILF strongholds and Malaysia's offer to mediate the talks, has given the peace process renewed life.

Mr. Afable acknowledges that some people are critical of the peace talks because rogue MILF members are believed to be harboring members of the Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah terror groups. But he believes forging a peace pact is the best way of weeding out the extremists.

"I think it is still better to negotiate and to use the cease-fire process to bring development in, to bring relief to the impoverished communities and in this way try to box out terrorist elements both operationally and through developmental activity," he said.

The Abu Sayyaf, another separatist Islamic group, is known for a series of kidnappings and murders. Jemaah Islamiyah is based in Indonesia and aims to create an Islamic state over much of Southeast Asia. Its members have been blamed for several deadly bombing attacks in Indonesia.

Mr. Afable said Thursday the talks later this month will largely focus on the MILF's historical land claims in Mindanao. The island was traditionally an Islamic stronghold but an influx of Christian settlers in the past century displaced many Muslims from their homes and left them as a minority group.