January 16, 2006

Philippine rebels see peace talks as done deal

By Manny Mogato

COTABATO CITY, Philippines (Reuters) - Peace talks with the
Philippine government are largely a done deal, the chief
negotiator of the largest Muslim rebel group said on Monday,
even if only about half of the contentious issues had been

Mohaqher Iqbal, a member of the Moro Islamic Liberation
Front (MILF) central committee, said his group was confident
that an agreement on an ancestral homeland for four million
Muslims in the south may be signed within the first six months
of this year.

But the final peace accord would have to wait until the two
sides have agreed on what form of government would be set up in
a specific Muslim territory.

"We're 85 percent finished, that's quantitatively
speaking," Iqbal told Reuters at a riverside hideout outside
Cotabato City, the financial hub of poor Muslim communities on
the southern island of Mindanao.

"In terms of quality, we're still very far because the last
phase of the talks is the most difficult agenda and we've done
only about 50 percent. But we're inching forward."

Government and MILF peace negotiators are due to resume
informal talks this month in Malaysia, hoping to overcome
"minor obstacles" on the path toward a Muslim ancestral

"There's no question that large parts of Mindanao, Sulu,
Tawi-tawi and Palawan island are part of a Muslim ancestral
land," Iqbal said over sweet tea and banana fritters.

"The MILF is very practical. We would not try to reclaim
areas no longer in the hands of Muslims. But, like the American
native Indians that owned Manhattan in New York, we would like
to discuss compensation for the territories lost."

Finer details on the issues of territory and governance,
including possible disarmament, would be taken up after the two
sides come to an agreement on ancestral domain, the third and
final major point in the peace talks.


The nearly 40-year separatist insurgency by the
12,000-member MILF, the largest of four Muslim rebel forces in
the mainly Roman Catholic country, has killed more than 120,000
people and stunted rural development in the impoverished south.

A truce has held since July 2003 and further cooperation
with the MILF under a peace agreement would further isolate
homegrown groups such as Abu Sayyaf that have been linked to al
Qaeda and its allied Southeast Asian network, Jemaah Islamiah


The United States, Manila's closest security partner in the
region and a major source of military assistance, has
criticised the Philippines for not pushing the MILF hard enough
to crack down on foreign militants hiding on Mindanao.

Washington has said Indonesian militants Umar Patek and
Dulmatin -- two key suspects in the October 2002 Bali bombings
that killed about 200 people -- are believed to be on Mindanao.

Dulmatin has a $10 million bounty, with $1 million for

"We renounced terrorism as an instrument to achieve our
political goals," said Iqbal. "We're helping isolate and
interdict terrorists in our areas, but we've not validated the
presence of JI in our camps."

Iqbal said the MILF was concerned over the increasing
presence of U.S. military forces in Muslim areas in the south,
saying it could have adverse effects on the ceasefire and peace

"We have concerns about possible mistaken armed encounters
with our forces," he said, appealing to Manila to coordinate
the movements and activities of about 60 U.S. commandos set to
join month-long military exercises in Carmen town next week.

"We're worried. There are many groups here opposed to the
U.S. military presence and that could lead to an escalation of