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Philippines Reaches Homeland Agreement MILF Rebels

Philippines reaches homeland agreement with the Muslim rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) group

Philippines, Jul 16, 2008: After months of stalled negotiations, the Philippine government reached an agreement with the country's largest Muslim rebel group Wednesday (July 16) over the terms of the creation of an autonomous homeland in the southern Mindanao region.

The agreement marks an important milestone in the seven-year negotiations between Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which have been at an impasse since December. Although MILF and the government signed a ceasefire agreement in 2003 that has largely held, there has been a jump in the number of skirmishes between them in recent weeks as MILF leaders have warned that their rebels are becoming restless amid the lack of political progress.

Media sources said Wednesday that MILF and Manila representatives had been meeting secretly in Malaysia, which has brokered the talks for years and provides the bulk of an international ceasefire monitoring team, for several days and that Wednesday's talks resulted in an agreement over ancestral domain, considered the key issue in the dispute.

Ancestral domain includes the boundaries and proposed governance of an autonomous homeland for about 3 million Muslims who live in the southern provinces of the mainly Roman Catholic nation. While no details were released, the Manila Times reported that the agreement adds areas of Zamboanga del Norte, Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga Sibugay, North Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, Sarangani and Palawan provinces to the already existing Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao.

Wednesday's agreement was informal and the Associated Press reported that the two sides are to meet July 24 to finalize the proposal and set a date for the resumption of formal peace talks. But even if the ancestral domain issue is resolved, there is no guarantee of an end to the near-40-year conflict.

"It was a tough meeting," Reuters quoted Mohaqher Iqbal, MILF's chief negotiator, as saying. "The real battle will be fought on the next level when we start talks on the political formula to end the conflict. But, at least we have hurdled the ancestral domain issue. We can now return to formal negotiations."

The two sides said they had reached an ancestral domain agreement in the fall, but before they were set to meet to sign the deal, MILF backed out, saying the government had reneged on some of the original terms. The resulting delay in talks led Malaysia to begin pulling out its members of the ceasefire monitoring team, which many say has contributed to the increase in violence.

Iqbal said Wednesday that he hopes Malaysia will now reconsider its withdrawal. As talks continued in Malaysia Wednesday, a MILF spokesperson reported that one government militiaman was killed in a clash with rebels in North Cotabato province, near the village of Bagolibas.

The Philippine Inquirer reported that militia members had responded to reports of MILF rebels harassing civilians trying to harvest their crops Wednesday morning and the resulting violence caused hundreds of civilians to flee the area.

Source: Center for Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance (COE-DMHA)

ENDS

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