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Philippines Government, Rebels to Hold Meetings - 2003-03-26

Philippine government negotiators are meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Thursday, with representatives of the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the MILF. The Philippine government and the MILF have been trying to negotiate a solution to their decades long conflict for some time, but the government broke off formal negotiations with the rebels in March of last year following a string of violent incidents in Mindanao island.

Informal discussions continued, but they, too, were suspended last month when the Philippine army overran a major rebel stronghold. The rebels responded with a series of attacks that have left dozens of soldiers and civilians dead.

In one of the worst incidents, 21 people were killed when a bomb went off at the Davao airport. Jesus Dureza is peace advisor to Philippine President Gloria Arroyo. He told VOA the talks in Kuala Lumpur are the first step in getting the peace talks back on track. "There is no agenda since this is exploratory but we hope that we can address the ongoing situation in Mindanao," says Mr. Dureza.

Mr. Dureza says one of the principle issues they want to discuss is the plight of the thousands of people who have been displaced by recent fighting.

The MILF has indicated it, too, wants to see the peace process resumed, but spokesman Eid Kabalu told VOA the government is to blame for the refugee situation and the issue will not be on the agenda. "They are not there to discuss things outside of the possibility of deliberating the desire to implement all signed agreements between the government and the MILF," he says.

Mr. Kabalu suggested the chief issue is the resumption of the ceasefire. He says the rebels do not plan to offer any proposals of their own but are willing to listen to what the government has to say.

The MILF is the largest of four groups fighting for an Islamic state in the south of the predominantly Catholic country. The Philippines has been on alert against attacks by extremists since the U.S.-led war against Iraq began last week.

Reports say at least five villagers and five MILF rebels were killed in a clash in the southern Philippines on Wednesday.