Philippines' Arroyo sees peace with Muslim rebels

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said Thursday she expects a peace pact with Muslim separatist rebels this year, and appealed for international support in rebuilding conflict-stricken communities in the country's south.

Government and Muslim rebel negotiators met recently in Malaysia in the latest round of informal talks to end more than three decades of rebellion, and agreed to resume discussions early next month, a rebel spokesman said.

"I believe that before the year is out, we would be able to achieve a lasting peace in Mindanao with your support," Arroyo said in a speech at an international donors' meeting in Tagaytay city, south of Manila.

"The last mile is always the hardest sailing because that is when the destination is in sight, but the winds of resistance will blow most fiercely."

Arroyo said "nothing will be more powerful for the future development of the Philippines than to bring peace, stability and justice to Mindanao," which is regarded as the Filipino Muslim homeland.

She told donors: "Please consider providing your aid now even as we await the signing of a final peace accord as several nations have already done under the Mindanao Trust Fund of the World Bank."

The bank and international donors so far have contributed US$2.7 million ( Ђ 2.2 million) and promised US$50 million ( Ђ 41 million) more after a peace agreement is signed.

"Mindanao has great potential for rapid development if different groups can begin to trust each other, find agreements, and, together, focus on the development ... especially those areas that have been affected by the armed conflict," World Bank representative Joachim von Amsberg said.

Rebel spokesman Eid Kabalu said the negotiators were unable to settle differences over "ancestral domain," which includes control of resources and demarcation of territory.

"They will return in the first part of April," Kabalu The Associated Press by telephone. "We are optimistic. We are confident that we can reach an agreement within this year," reports the AP.


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