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 in the past 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. But he added that both sides "must always remain guarded in our optimism" because of the challenges in implementing the political solution contained in the agreement.
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 flesh out the details of the preliminary pact and draft a law creating a new Muslim-administered region by 2015 and pave the way for the signing of a final peace deal the following year, when President Benigno Aquino III's term ends, according to Iqbal.
Iqbal earlier told The Associated Press that his group would not lay down its weapons until a final accord is concluded, adding that insurgents could form a political party and run in democratic elections to get a chance at leading the autonomous region they have been fighting for.
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 ended the violence.