Philippine govt resumes talks with Muslim rebels
Tuesday, 29 July 2008

KUALA LUMPUR, Sun Jul 27, ( - Philippine government negotiators met the country's largest Muslim rebel group on Sunday to try to break an impasse on territorial rights for Muslims in the volatile south, officials said.

Both sides had hoped to wrap up the talks on an ancestral homeland last week in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur ahead of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's annual state of the nation address on Monday.

But the talks ended in deadlock on Friday after Manila tried to delay a referendum on enlarging a previous Muslim homeland until after a political agreement was reached.

"I am informed that efforts are continuing at this very moment to resolve the difficult issues," said government press secretary Jesus Dureza. "I am confident we can move forward."

"I don't think anyone of the two sides will squander these gains for lasting peace," he said in Manila as government negotiators returned to Kuala Lumpur on Sunday for talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

While a deal on ancestral land was no guarantee a final settlement to one of Southeast Asia's most intractable conflicts was in the offing, it was an important step towards ending violence that has killed 120,000 people since the late 1960s.

A Malaysian government source close to the talks said both sides were expected to finalise a draft agreement on ancestral homeland on Sunday, putting it back on track for formal signing on August. 5. "Everything is back in place," the source said.

The MILF said it hoped for the best.

"The MILF has laid out its cards on the table. It's a make-or-break meeting," MILF chief negotiator Mohaqher Iqbal told Reuters. "We're returning to the negotiating table. We're not totally closing our door."

Analysts say opposition among powerful Christian and Muslim families in the south and government hawks to a formal peace deal with the MILF and Arroyo's reliance on their support mean Manila's negotiating strategy is wobbly and easily thrown off course.

Real progress appeared to have been made when Arroyo last week supported postponing August 11 elections in the Muslim south because progress in talks with the 11,000-member MILF made a new political setup a possibility.

Some lawmakers in Manila were opposed to the postponement and complained that they did not know what had been agreed with the MILF. They said Congress was not consulted on the issue.

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