Philippine government, MILF meet in Malaysia

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Jan 28 2010 09:43 PM | Updated as of Jan 29 2010 05:59 AM

KUALA LUMPUR - The Philippine government and Muslim separatists held two days of talks in Malaysia as they work towards a peace deal to end decades of conflict, officials said Thursday.

Malaysian facilitator Othman Razak said negotiators from the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the largest of the country's Muslim rebel groups, met in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday and Thursday.

After a 16-month impasse, the two sides last month resumed negotiations towards ending a separatist rebellion in the southern island of Mindanao that has left more than 150,000 people dead.

In the latest talks they reviewed each other's draft positions, Othman said, adding they would meet again on February 18-19 when they will "identify next steps towards achieving a comprehensive, compact and a negotiated solution".

He also said that international monitors would return to Mindanao "in the coming weeks."

The Philippines' chief negotiator, Rafael Seguis, said there had been no breakthrough in this week's talks.

"I wish to clarify that there is no agreement yet. Both sides are still in the early stages of discussing each other’s position papers," he said in a statement.

Seguis said that any negotiations that touched on the Philippines' legislation or policy would have to be submitted to Congress for approval.

In December both sides expressed optimism over the renewed talks, which collapsed after the MILF launched deadly attacks across Mindanao in August 2008.

The violence broke out after the Philippine Supreme Court outlawed a proposed deal that would have given the MILF control over large areas of the south that were claimed by the rebel group as its "ancestral domain".

Over 700,000 people were displaced at the height of the fighting and nearly 400 were killed. A new ceasefire was signed in September, paving the way for the resumption of the talks.

Since then, Mindanao has been rocked by a massacre in Maguindanao province that left 57 people dead and the imposition of martial law there as the government battled militiamen loyal to the powerful Ampatuan clan.

The government had earlier backed the clan as part of a strategy to contain the 12,000-strong MILF.

Seguis has previously said that Manila is aiming to secure a peace deal with the MILF before President Gloria Arroyo steps down this year.

Arroyo opened the peace talks in 2001 in an effort to end the bloody secessionist war in restive but mineral-rich Mindanao.