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Philippines Cease-Fire Could Pave Way for Resumption of Peace Talks - 2003-07-18

The Philippine government and Muslim separatist rebels have agreed to a cease-fire in a fresh bid to end more than 30 years of conflict in the country's south.

President Gloria Arroyo announced the cease-fire Friday, ordering government forces to stop attacks against rebels belonging to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or MILF.

She called on both parties to immediately resume Malaysian-brokered peace talks, which have been frozen since February.

Welcoming the move, "We are prepared to go back to the negotiating table," said rebel spokesman Eid Kabalu.

Officials say the talks could begin as early as next week.

The agreement is the product of diplomatic efforts by neighboring Malaysia. Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi met with President Arroyo last week, promising to send peacekeepers to the violence-plagued and impoverished southern islands, where the rebels want to establish a separate Muslim homeland.

The United States had earlier promised diplomatic and economic support for the peace process.

"We are confident that Malaysia indeed would try its best to help both parties come to an agreement," said Eduardo Ermita, the government's chief peace negotiator.

The government and the rebels signed a similar cease-fire in 2001, but it collapsed in February, when fighting broke out. Since then, the MILF has been accused of terrorist attacks and of having ties with the regional terror network, Jemaah Islamiyah. The MILF says it denounces terrorism, and has denied such allegations.

On Friday, President Arroyo suspended outstanding arrest warrants for top MILF leaders relating to terrorism charges, allowing a return to negotiations.