By Manny Mogato
MANILA, July 16 (Reuters) - The Philippine government and the largest Muslim separatist group reached a deal on Wednesday to create an ancestral homeland for 3 million Muslims in the south of the mainly Roman Catholic state, officials said.
The agreement, while crucial for the resumption of formal peace talks, does not guarantee the end of a near 40-year conflict that has killed 120,000 people and displaced 2 million on the resource-rich southern island of Mindanao.
"We have finally settled all the remaining issues on ancestral domain," Mohaqher Iqbal, chief negotiator of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), told Reuters at the end of a one-day meeting brokered by the Malaysian government.
"It was a tough meeting. 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."
Retired general Rodolfo Garcia, the head of the government’s peace panel, said: "Praise God. It’s over."
Manila and the 11,000-member MILF have been talking for more than a decade on how to give Muslims in the south a greater degree of self-rule and it took the two sides nearly four years to reach this agreement on expanding the coverage of an existing autonomous region for the minority group.
Many in the Philippines are sceptical about a speedy final resolution to one of Southeast Asia’s most intractable conflicts, but the government reiterated its optimistic stance.
"We are happy that the talks are finally moving forward," Hermogenes Esperon, the president’s peace adviser, told Reuters in Manila after he was informed of the breakthrough.
"We are very positive that we could meet an earlier deadline to wrap up talks and sign a final peace deal with the MILF by next year."
Although President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has repeatedly said she wants peace, hawks in her cabinet are opposed to giving large swathes of land to Muslims and politically powerful Christian clans in the south would certainly oppose a final deal.
Iqbal said the two sides would now discuss ways to expand and extend the mandate of the 60 unarmed peace monitors from Brunei, Japan, Libya and Malaysia who have been deployed on Mindanao island since October 2004.
"I hope we can convince Malaysia to reconsider its earlier plan to quit the International Monitoring Team," he said, adding the monitors were instrumental in reducing violence in the south.
Last week, General Alexander Yano, the Philippines’ military chief, said he had noted a sharp rise in the number of skirmishes and ceasefire violations since Malaysia pulled out 29 monitors from Mindanao in May.
The MILF blamed the delay in the talks for the spike in violence.
Talks to create an ancestral homeland for Muslims stalled in December 2007 over constitutional issues and it took months of diplomacy by Malaysia to get the two sides to narrow their differences and reach a consensus.
Both sides will meet again next week to finalise Wednesday’s draft agreement. (Additional reporting by Manila and Kuala Lumpur bureaux; Editing by Carmel Crimmins and Alex Richardson)