AP News

Philippines, Muslim rebels close to peace deal

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippine government and Muslim rebels resumed talks Tuesday on resolving final differences in a preliminary peace accord they hope to conclude soon, in what is expected to be a major breakthrough toward ending a decades-long rebellion in the country's south.

Government negotiators met with representatives of the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to attempt to seal what they call a "framework agreement" on major issues, including the extent of power, revenues and territory to be granted to a Muslim-administered region. It would be the most significant progress in years of negotiations on ending a rebellion that has left more than 120,000 people dead and held back development in the south.

Western governments have long been worried that rebel strongholds could become breeding grounds for al-Qaida-affiliated extremists.

Rebel negotiator Mohagher Iqbal said at the talks' resumption that they are "now on the home stretch and the smell of success is reinforced every day."

Iqbal warned that if the negotiations are not concluded soon, opponents might endanger a final deal. A breakaway rebel group has opposed the talks, and some Christian politicians, wary of losing land and power to minority Muslims, have been accused of undermining the negotiations.

"If we cannot conclude it soon successfully, now that we are at the brink of the exercise, we will be in trouble," Iqbal said. "The greatest source of risk comes from spoilers, leaders, and parties who believe that these ... negotiations threaten their power and interests."

Government negotiator Marvic Leonen said that "to state that what we hope to be able to do again in the next few days is historical is definitely an understatement."

"We are on the brink of layering the written predicates that can frame the process of building trust as we usher in an era of peace, of hope and of recovery," Leonen said.

The Moro rebel group has been fighting for self-rule for minority Muslims in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation's south. It dropped a demand for a separate Muslim state and now seeks an expansion of an existing Muslim autonomous region and more powers and resources to rehabilitate the violent, poverty-wracked area.

The initial accord is to contain general agreements on key issues. A transition commission would be established to work out the details of the preliminary pact, which would hopefully lead to a final accord in as little as three years, Iqbal has said.

In 2008, the planned signing of a preliminary pact was scuttled when opponents went to the Supreme Court, which declared the agreement unconstitutional, prompting three rebel commanders to attack Christian communities in the south. The attacks and an ensuing military offensive killed more than 100 people and displaced about 750,000 villagers before a cease-fire was forged.

Last August, a rebel faction opposed to the talks attacked several army camps and outposts in southern Maguindanao and North Cotabato provinces, sparking two weeks of sporadic fighting that left more than 50 dead and displaced 45,000 others. The new unrest eased after the military launched a crackdown.

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