Peace talks between Philippines and Muslim rebels make progress

Philippine government negotiators and Muslim separatists made progress toward cementing a peace deal in negotiations Tuesday in Malaysia, a rebel official said.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Philippine government held formal negotiations in a hotel in Port Dickson outside Kuala Lumpur after wrapping up a technical meeting Monday, a Malaysian government official familiar with the discussions said on condition of anonymity. Malaysia is helping facilitate the talks.

"Surely, we are now in the final stretch of our peace talks in our journey toward finding a comprehensive, just, and lasting solution to this problem in Mindanao," MILF's chief negotiator, Mohagher Iqbal, said in a statement.

"We must not fail to seize this opportunity," Iqbal said. The Malaysian official said negotiators from both sides are putting "the final touches" on a statement on the progress that has been made. The statement was expected to be issued later Tuesday when the talks end.

He said the negotiations were over the issues of ancestral land, ownership rights to resources, and efforts to seek peace in order to obtain international aid to bring development to the southern Philippines.

The MILF, which the Philippine military says has 11,000 men with over 8,000 firearms, has been fighting for self-rule in the southern Mindanao region for more than two decades. A 2003 cease-fire is in place while negotiations are being held.

Both sides have expressed optimism that the latest talks will help them overcome long-standing differences and move closer to a peace accord.

"We are hopeful that something will come out on the discussion of the agenda on ancestral domain," Philippine Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said Sunday, referring to the thorny issue of minority Muslims' territorial rights in the Philippines' volatile south, reports the AP.

I.L.