KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) — The Philippines government and separatist rebels have struck a deal on creating a Muslim homeland in the country's south which is expected to lead to a peace accord next year, officials said Thursday.
The agreement on the extent of territory to be handed over had been a major stumbling block in the peace talks that opened when a ceasefire was forged with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in 2001.
The two sides did not disclose the new borders agreed after two days of talks here, but Malaysian officials said the territory would be greater than the present autonomous region in the troubled island of Mindanao.
"After more than three decades of problems in Mindanao, it is for the government to give concessions. It could not be the other side, so the government has to concede what it think is reasonable," said Philippines chief negotiator Rodolfo Garcia.
In an issue known as "ancestral domain," the land in question consists of untitled communal farms that came under formal state ownership when the Philippines became a Spanish colony in the late 16th century.
"We are confident that the momentum of signing the ancestral domain agreement will be able to carry us forward in the other tests and challenges ahead," Garcia said.
He said the agreement would be wrapped up with other elements into a "final peace agreement which we expect to be able to reach by the middle of 2008, by August of 2008."
"Hopefully we would be able, after the signing of the comprehensive compact, to find closure to the centuries-old problem in Mindanao which various regimes in Manila have not solved," said MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal.
The Malaysian hosts said that another round of exploratory peace talks would be held in December before formal discussions early next year.
"The successful outcome of discussions clears the way for the drafting of the memorandum of agreement on ancestral domain which shall be tabled at the formal talks scheduled for early 2008," said Malaysian facilitator Othman Abdul Razak.
The full peace deal is to cover three areas: security, rehabilitation and ancestral domain. In previous talks, the two parties have agreed on the security and rehabilitation issues.
Talks ended in a bitter impasse in September last year over the ancestral domain issue in the southern island of Mindanao, where the rebels have been waging a separatist rebellion since 1978.
Low-level and informal talks continued, despite sporadic clashes on the ground.
MILF signed a truce with Manila in 2003, paving the way for formal negotiations with the government of President Gloria Arroyo.
Othman said that the accord would have a major positive impact on the security of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
"We hope peace in Mindanao will prevent some of the violence and terrorism that may affect the stability of the region," he said.
Malaysia, current chair of the world's biggest Muslim grouping -- the Organisation of the Islamic Conference -- also leads a 60-strong monitoring mission in Mindanao.
Othman said Malaysia had been asked to consider extending the mission after the mandate expires on December 4 and that it had responded positively.
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