The Philippine government and Muslim rebels are on a "fast track" to strike a pact ending a decades-old rebellion by next March or April, the Malaysian hosts of peace talks said today. Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) also agreed to send international monitors to the disputed island of Mindanao, in a peace process revived after a 16-month impasse, a Malaysian official Othman Abdul Razak said.
"There are a lot of challenges ahead, it is not an easy task," Mr Othman told a joint press conference at the end of two-day talks in Kuala Lumpur. "With the commitment of the government of the Philippines and the MILF, and the resolve shown by both sides ... we are trying to sign the compact by the first quarter of next year, March or April, so we are going on a fast track." Philippines negotiators have also said they hope to secure a peace deal with the MILF, and end a conflict that has claimed more than 150,000 lives since the 1970s, before President Gloria Arroyo steps down next year.
The MILF, the largest of the Philippines' Muslim rebel groups, has also said it is optimistic of reaching a settlement in the talks, which had collapsed in August 2008. In a joint statement, the two sides said they had agreed to establish an international taskforce "to monitor ceasefire, humanitarian, rehabilitation, development and civilian protection agreements." They said the monitors would create "a secure environment for the negotiations" which broke down when the MILF launched deadly attacks across Mindanao.
The MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal told the press conference that the group "does not want war" but "will not accept an imposed or half-baked solution". The 2008 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". More than 700,000 people were displaced at the height of the fighting and nearly 400 were killed. More than 250,000 people remain in evacuation centres across Mindanao.
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 battles 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 but in a sign of the changed mood, the government has excluded MILF areas in Maguindanao from the new security measures.