Philippines, Muslim rebels hope to sign pact soon

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — The Philippine government and the country's largest Muslim rebel group on Wednesday began what they hope will be the final round of talks on ending a decades-long rebellion.

Negotiators from the government and the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front said they are guardedly optimistic they can iron out differences on the final issues of rebel disarmament and the extent of minority Muslim control over resource-rich waters in the four-day negotiations that opened in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

An agreement on those issues would conclude the yearslong talks and lead to the signing of a comprehensive peace agreement, presidential peace process adviser Teresita Deles said.

The proposed peace pact would grant minority Muslims broader autonomy in the south in exchange for ending more than 40 years of violence that has killed more than 120,000 combatants and civilians and held back progress in the resource-rich but poverty-wracked region.

Disarming the guerrillas under an accord called "normalization" is among the most delicate stages of the talks and involves convincing rebel commanders to lay down their weapons in a restive region where some have had long-running clan feuds outside of the insurgency. A volatile mix of unlicensed guns, weak law enforcement and the presence of many armed groups has long engendered a gun culture in the region.

Deles said the two sides have discussed the thorny issue since last year and need to thresh out the remaining details, including ways of helping former combatants regain normal lives and establishing independent commissions to oversee the rebel "decomissioning" and the formation of a security force in the broader Muslim autonomous region, to be called Bangsamoro.

"The last mile is always the hardest," Deles said.

While a final peace agreement could possibly be signed soon, rebel negotiator Mohagher Iqbal said more needed to be done afterward, including the crafting and passage of a law authorizing establishment of the more powerful autonomous region.

Despite growing optimism, both sides warned a peace pact would not immediately end the violence in the south of the predominantly Roman Catholic nation where at least three other armed Islamic groups have opposed the Malaysian-brokered talks and vowed to continue an uprising for a separate Muslim homeland.

Rebels from one group, the Moro National Liberation Front, took scores of hostages in September and occupied coastal communities in southern Zamboanga city in a bloody siege they launched after accusing the government of reneging on its commitments under a 1996 autonomy deal.

Thousands of troops ended the weekslong uprising with a major offensive that killed more than 200 people, most of them insurgents.

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