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Philippines Hopes for Peace Deal With Muslim Rebels by September


A Philippine government negotiator says Manila hopes to achieve a final peace agreement with Muslim rebels by as early as September, after reaching a preliminary deal on land claims with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. A final peace pact would end a conflict that has killed more than 120,000 people.

The government's head negotiator, Silvestre Afable, told reporters Wednesday the contentious points on a key issue had been resolved with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Afable said a final agreement on the issue of ancestral domain could be signed at the end of March.

At that time, the formal peace talks will start. The discussions so far have only been exploratory. Afable says both sides believe they can reach a final agreement by September.

But he would not give details of the preliminary deal on land claims involving ancestral domain, saying they will be made public when the agreement is finalized.

Ancestral domain covers precise geographical limits to the homeland proposed by the MILF, as well as mineral rights and governance.

Although Muslims claim the region of Mindanao in the southern Philippines as their ancestral home, much of the area came under the control of Christian settlers in the past century, leading to conflicts. The country is predominantly Roman Catholic.

Afable says he is confident of reaching a final agreement for many reasons, especially the good faith of the MILF representatives he is dealing with.

"I have experience across the negotiating table that there is a very good spirit of give-and-take," he added. "We are dealing with a very reasonable group who share certain aspirations with our government to have permanent peace in Mindanao and to finally end this conflict."

Afable says there is also very strong international support from Southeast Asian nations, the United States and the European Union. He says another positive factor is the stability in Mindanao, referring to a cease-fire that has been in place for several years.

One possible concern, however, is terrorism, but Afable says extremist elements will always try to undermine a settlement. Militant groups from with the Philippines and from elsewhere in Southeast Asia are thought to operate in the southern islands.

The MILF also expressed optimism. The rebels' chief negotiator says the sides are closer to finding a just, lasting and comprehensive solution. The 12,000 strong MILF has been fighting for an independent Islamic state in Mindanao for more than three decades.

In the 1990s the Philippine government reached a peace agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front, granting much of Mindanao considerable autonomy. However, the MILF split from that group, saying the deal was inadequate. The United States has praised Manila for its talks with the rebels and over the years has also provided military aid to help the government fight terrorist groups.