Philippines seeks talks with Muslim rebels next month

The Philippine government said on Friday it hoped to resume talks with Muslim rebels early next month to kickstart negotiations for a peace settlement that looked to have stalled in recent months.

The chief government negotiator, Miriam Ferrer, and her Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) counterpart Mohagher Iqbal agreed in a brief meeting in Norway early this week to resume formal talks in early July, a government statement said.

Senen Bacani, a member of the government panel, said the next meeting should help the government achieve its bid to reach agreement on the detailed terms of a peace settlement this year.

"I am very hopeful that we will finish this comprehensive agreement in a month or two," the statement quoted Bacani as saying.

However MILF vice chairman Ghazali Jaafar did not share Bacani's optimism, saying the rebel group's leadership had yet to approve the government proposal for a fresh round of formal talks.

"Those (talks in July) is what we have been hearing very recently but we have not yet officially received such a proposal," he told AFP.

The talks, which began in 1997, aim to create an autonomous region for the Muslim minority in Mindanao, the southern third of the mainly Catholic nation of 100 million.

The two sides signed a preliminary agreement in October outlining the broad terms for a peace treaty that would be signed by 2016, before President Benigno Aquino leaves office.

However, both sides have since acknowledged difficulties in thrashing out the details of key issues like wealth- and power-sharing within the proposed autonomous region, as well as disarming and demobilising the MILF.

The government statement said next month's proposed talks would further discuss "wealth-sharing, power sharing and normalisation".

The 12,000-member MILF has waged a guerrilla war for a separate Islamic state in the southern Philippines since the 1970s that has claimed an estimated 150,000 lives.

The group has agreed to a ceasefire to negotiate for autonomy instead. Aquino hopes to have the autonomous region in place before his term ends in 2016.

Malaysia has hosted previous rounds of the peace talks, and a source in the government panel said Kuala Lumpur would likely be the venue for the next round.

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