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Philippines sees Muslim rebel settlement in a year

MANILA, February 11, 2011 (AFP) – The Philippine government said Friday it hoped to end a decades-long Muslim separatist rebellion within 12 months, after the two sides held their first peace talks in two years.

Chief government negotiator Marvic Leonen said he came away convinced after the first round of negotiations in Malaysia that the end was in sight for a rebellion that officials said had claimed up to 150,000 lives.

“I still maintain our position that one year is a reasonable period to come to a fundamental agreement on a politically negotiated settlement with the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front),” he said on his return to Manila.

The meeting is scheduled to reconvene on March 29 and 30, Leonen told a news conference.

The 12,000-member MILF has been fighting for an independent Muslim homeland on the southern island of Mindanao since the 1970s, though it signed a ceasefire with Manila in 2009.

Leonen said he put to the MILF the government’s serious concerns over the emergence of a breakaway rebel faction that authorities say could undermine efforts to end one of the world’s longest-running insurgencies.

“They have assured us that communication between the leadership of the MILF and (Ameril Umbrakato) is ongoing,” he added.

The MILF announced last weekend that Umbrakato had split from the MILF, taking with him about a thousand fighters.

Umbrakato is one of two MILF senior commanders who launched deadly attacks across mostly Christian communities on Mindanao in 2008.

The attacks were in retaliation for a Supreme Court decision outlawing a proposed land deal that would have given the rebels control over what they claim as ancestral lands on Mindanao.

The attacks, which forced the suspension of the peace process, left nearly 400 dead and hundreds of thousands displaced.

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