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Philippines seeks exploratory talks with Muslim rebels

MANILA, December 22, 2010 (AFP) – The Philippine government said Wednesday it hopes to start exploratory talks next month with Muslim rebels waging a decades-old rebellion in the country’s south.

Formal invitations have been sent to Mohagher Iqbal, the chief negotiator of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and Malaysia is a possible venue, said Iqbal’s counterpart on the government panel, Marvic Leonen.

“The earliest, we hope, will be in January next year. We are open to holding the sessions anywhere, but it could be in Kuala Lumpur,” Leonen said in a statement issued by the office of President Benigno Aquino’s peace adviser.

The rebels have recently said they are open to negotiating a political settlement with the government in exchange for limited self-rule after a 32-year campaign that has left up to 150,000 people dead by some estimates.

Malaysia has agreed to broker the peace talks, the same role it performed in an inconclusive process between the MILF and the government of Aquino’s predecessor, Gloria Arroyo.

However, the 12,000-member guerrilla force has been slow to respond, while protesting against the arrest of several high-profile MILF leaders on charges of terrorism.

As in its separate peace efforts with Maoist rebels, Aquino’s government wants to sign a peace treaty with the MILF within three years so its provisions could be implemented before he leaves office in 2016, Leonen said.

Norway is to host parallel talks between the Philippine government and communist rebels next month.

“The president wants to implement it (peace treaty provisions with the Muslim rebels) within the six-year period,” Leonen said.

“Working backwards, that means it could be possible to have an acceptance of a politically negotiated settlement by the middle of the term,” he added.

The MILF called off peace talks with the Arroyo government in 2008 after the Supreme Court outlawed a draft peace settlement that would have given minority Muslims control over large areas of the south.

The resulting surge in violence displaced 750,000 people and left nearly 400 people dead, according to official estimates.

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