MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippine government and the country's largest Muslim rebel group agreed on Wednesday to return to formal peace negotiations, hoping to end over four decades of armed conflict on the resource-rich southern island.
In a joint statement, the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) announced the setting up of an International Contact Group (ICG) to help both sides strike a political deal to end a Muslim insurgency that has turned off investors in the mineral-rich region.
Japan, Turkey and the United Kingdom have agreed to sit with the two panels in stop-start talks brokered by Malaysia since 2001. Three non-government organizations, including the U.S.-based Asia Foundation, will also join the ICG.
"The formation of the ICG finally clears the way for the formal resumption of the peace talks," said the joint statement signed by the chief negotiators of the two sides, adding formal negotiations will begin on December 8-9 in Kuala Lumpur.
Mohagher Iqbal, the rebels' chief negotiator, told Reuters by phone from his base on the southern island of Mindanao that he was confident a final solution to the conflict can be reached before President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo steps down in June.
"In three days, we can reach a final peace deal if the government is really sincere in ending the violence in the south and bring economic development," he said.
Iqbal said the two sides would negotiate to reconstitute an International Monitoring Team (IMT) and reactivate an ad hoc joint action group to be tasked to isolate Muslim militants and criminal groups in rebel-controlled areas.
The IMT and ad hoc joint action group pulled out more than a year ago after violence escalated in Muslim areas in the south following a Supreme Court ruling that stopped a deal between Manila and the MILF that expanded an autonomous Muslim region.
More than a 1,000 people were killed and nearly 750,000 people were displaced by fighting between security forces and rogue Muslim rebels from August 2008 until July this year.
The two sides have been talking on-off for 12 years to end a conflict that has killed 120,000 people, displaced 2 million and scared potential investors in region believed to be sitting on huge oil and gas deposits.
Reporting by Manny Mogato; Editing by Rosemarie Francisco