RP-rebel peace talks begin


KUALA LUMPUR, AFP

Separatist Muslim rebels have arrived in Malaysia to begin a new round of talks with the Philippine government and are optimistic about the outcome, a rebel spokesman said Monday.

Eid Kabalu, Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) spokesman, said a 25-member delegation headed by Al Haj Murad Ibrahim would attend the talks.

“Right now they are being housed by the Malaysian government which is playing the role of a facilitator,” he told AFP in a telephone interview from Mindanao island in the southern Philippines.

Kabalu said the second round of negotiations between Manila and the MILF would begin Tuesday and end Friday but he did not know the venue.

Malaysia was apparently trying to keep the venue secret. The talks were being hosted by the prime minister’s department rather than the foreign ministry.

Malaysian officials either claimed no knowledge of the venue or were unavailable for comment. A Philippine embassy official said she did not know where the two sides would meet.

Manila’s team is expected to be led by chief government negotiator Jesus Dureza.

Negotiators will work out details of a landmark truce signed in Libya last month.

“The focus of the meeting will be the Tripoli agreement signed on June 22,” said Kabalu.

He said the MILF was optimistic about the talks and expected some final decisions on economic rehabilitation in the poverty-stricken southern Philippines.

“We accept something fruitful to be concluded from the meeting,” Kabalu said, adding that any deal might be signed during a visit to Malaysia by Philippine President Gloria Arroyo next month.

The 12,500-strong MILF is the Philippines’ main Muslim insurgent group. The talks are aimed at ending their 23-year rebellion for an independent Islamic state in the south.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar last week said peace in the southern Philippines was key to economic development in the region.