(Reuters) - The largest Muslim guerrilla group in the Philippines, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), is optimistic talks with the government next week will lead to an end of their more than 40-year separatist conflict.
MILF chief Ebrahim Murad said his group would demand an autonomous region in the south of the mainly Roman Catholic state, recognizing Muslims’ right to self-determination.
Peace talks brokered by Malaysia since March 2001 have resulted in a truce and a government commitment to rebuild Muslim communities in conflict areas, but a deal to end the insurgency remains elusive.
About 120,000 people have been killed and 2 million displaced in the rebellion, which has hobbled investment and development in an area rich which resources such as minerals, natural gas and oil.
Talks resume in the Malaysian capital next week.
Here are some facts about the MILF:
- The group was formed after Egypt-educated Islamist cleric Salamat Hashim broke away from the Moro National Liberation Front in 1978 after it signed a deal with the government accepting an autonomy set-up in the south.
The MILF has about 11,000 members. Its main base is the central region of Mindanao island, and it has a presence on remote southern islands of Basilan, Jolo, Tawi-tawi and Palawan.
- In the Afghan war against the Soviets in the 1980s, the MILF recruited dozens of Filipino Muslims to train in Pakistan and fight in Afghanistan with other Southeast Asian jihadists. Hashim shuttled between Mindanao and Pakistan at that time.
- From the late 1990s, the MILF allowed al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiah, a Southeast Asian regional militant network linked to al Qaeda, to seek shelter and train in its bases.
- But the MILF severed links al Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiah and the hardline Philippine Abu Sayyaf group in 2004 to save talks with the government and avoid being labeled a foreign terrorist group by the United States and other Western states.
However, Philippine security officials say some MILF members continue to shelter dozens of Islamist militants from Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.
- Since 1997, peace talks between the government and the MILF have been stop-start. Ceasefire agreements have been broken at least three times, with troops launching offensives in response to deadly bombings and attacks on Christian communities in the south that were blamed on the rebels.
The latest major conflict was in August 2008, when the Supreme Court blocked a deal after Christian politicians opposed expanding an autonomous area for Muslims and giving its regional government political and economic powers.
Talks with the seven-month government of President Benigno Aquini are set to resume next week after an impasse of six months over debate on whether to keep or replace a senior Malaysian official as chief facilitator of the talks.
Reporting by Manny Mogato; Editing by Robert Birsel