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Philippine Government, Rebels Move Toward Peace Amid Stumbling Blocks - 2003-07-09

The president of the Philippines and Malaysia's deputy prime minister met in Manila to discuss cementing a peace pact between the Philippines government and Muslim rebels.

Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo told Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi Wednesday that the government would not resist moves to lift arrest warrants against Muslim separatist rebel leaders in the southern Philippines.

The threat of arrest of rebel negotiators has been one of the big barriers to the continuing peace talks. Ms. Arroyo's concessions are considered a step forward.

Ms. Arroyo told Mr. Abdullah that her government was not opposed to lifting the warrants, but she says the appeal to lift the warrants must come from the rebels. Under the Philippines legal system, only the courts can lift the arrest warrants.

However, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or MILF, says it is not certain that it can do that. Reached by telephone, MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu told VOA that such a move violates the separatist group's policy of non-recognition of the Philippines constitution.

"She [Arroyo] wanted the MILF to do the initiative," he said. "But time and again, the MILF made it very, very clear that it cannot do that. Why? Because the MILF has a policy of not recognizing the Philippine constitution. And in doing so, the MILF would be stooping itself to that position."

Mr. Kabalu says no decision has been made on whether to reverse that policy.

The government and the MILF reached an initial peace agreement last month, but the process has stalled, largely due to the issue of warrants.

Malaysia has acted as intermediary before in talks between the Philippines government and the separatist MILF. The Malaysian negotiators say lifting arrest warrants and bounties on the heads of rebel leaders is crucial to confidence building between the two sides.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Blas Ople says an agreement had been reached in principle that Malaysia would form the cease-fire monitoring team once talks resume and a truce is reached.

From the MILF side, Mr. Kabalu says there is no disagreement over the issue of peace monitors.

"That is in line with the efforts by the parties to strengthen the cease-fire agreement on the ground," he added. "We welcome that development."

Mr. Kabalu adds that he is optimistic about the resumption of peace negotiations.

The MILF has been waging a 25-year insurgency for an independent Islamic state in the southern Philippines, which is a predominantly Catholic country.