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'PNoy-Murad meeting a major step forward'


Philippine President Benigno Aquino and the head of the country's main Muslim rebel group agreed during a secret meeting in Japan to speed up efforts on achieving peace, the two sides said Friday.

"Both agreed to fast track the negotiations," the Philippine government said after Aquino met Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) chairman Murad Ebrahim for two hours on Thursday at a hotel near Tokyo's main international airport.

"Both agreed that the implementation of any agreement should happen within the current administration," it added, referring to Aquino's six-year term that ends in mid-2016.

The MILF was also upbeat about the meeting, the first between their leader and any Philippine president after 14 years of on-again-off-again negotiations.

"The meeting between the two leaders gives a tremendous boost to the peace negotiations and in rekindling public expectation to fast-track the peace settlement," it said.

The 12,000-strong MILF has been waging an insurgency for more than three decades that initially aimed for an independent Muslim state in the mostly Catholic country's southern island of Mindanao, but is now focused on autonomy.

The rebellion has killed over 150,000 people and stunted economic growth in the mineral rich but impoverished southern region.

Aquino's predecessor, Gloria Arroyo, failed to sign a peace deal with the MILF during the nearly 10 years she was in power.

Arroyo did get close in 2008 with a proposed peace deal that would have given the MILF control over vast tracts of land, but the Supreme Court rejected the plan.

In response to the failure, rogue MILF commanders launched attacks on communities in the south that displaced more than 750,000 people during the worst of the unrest.

About 400 civilians and fighters from both sides were also killed.

The MILF agreed to return to the negotiating table after Aquino came to power last year, and talks have since been held in Malaysia, most recently in June.

Thursday's meeting came about after Aquino offered to sit down with the MILF chief anywhere so he could present his proposals on how best to reach a political settlement, chief government negotiator Marvic Leonen said.

Sidney Jones, regional analyst for the security think-tank International Crisis Group, said the meeting was an important step in the right direction, though she warned the path to peace was fraught with risks.

"I think it's a major step forward simply because it establishes a personal relationship between the two principals," Jones told AFP in a telephone interview from her Indonesia office.

"(But) what it will lead to in the future is not yet clear."

The official negotiating panels of the two sides are now set to return to talks in Malaysia from August 22, both parties said.

The MILF is the largest rebel group in Mindanao, but the area is also home to a small band of Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic militants, as well as other armed groups who conduct kidnappings and extortions to raise money. (AFP)

By Cecil Morella

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