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Philippines, rebels set for crucial phase of talks

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MANILA, Feb 22 (Reuters) The Philippine government and Islamic rebels will wrap up negotiations on ancestral rights for Muslims in the south next month, the final and most difficult stage in informal talks to end nearly 40 years of conflict.

Negotiators for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the government will meet from March 5 to 7 in Malaysia, where they will thrash out the specifics of territory, governance and sharing natural resources on Mindanao island.

An agreement there would pave the way for the first formal talks in three years to begin in late March. The two sides hope to sign a landmark peace deal by September, ending a conflict that has killed more than 120,000 people.

''We're prepared for a series of marathon discussions on the ancestral domain issue in our next meeting,'' Rodolfo Garcia, a member of the government's peace panel, told Reuters.

''We're already getting into some of the specifics. Our next job was to weave together all the issues we've already agreed in the past meetings and come up with a document on a proposed ancestral homeland for Muslims in the south.'' Garcia, a retired general who served once as head of the government's truce panel, described the next round of talks as ''very crucial''.

Since the late 1960s, Islamic separatist guerrillas have been fighting for an independent state for Muslims on Mindanao although a truce has been holding since July 2003.

''We don't see any obstacles,'' said Bobby Alonto, a member of the MILF's peace panel, although he was worried that sporadic clashes on Mindanao could affect the truce and the peace process.

Crucial talks between the two sides broke down three years ago when government forces attacked an MILF position in Mindanao.

Another MILF negotiator, Musib Buat, said the rebels were not simply negotiating for land tenure in the south but were fighting for ''the recognition of the bangsamoro people's birth right''.

Bangsamoro is a term used for Muslims in the south of the mainly Roman Catholic country in Southeast Asia.

''We're fighting for territorial rights,'' Buat told a forum on ancestral domain in Manila.

''We were the first nation. Long before a Philippines was born, we already have our own culture and government. We were the only people that were sold without us knowing it.'' Buat was referring to Spain's sale of its then colony, the Philippines, to the United States under the Treaty of Paris in 1898.

Malaysia, a Muslim country west of the Philippines, has been trying to broker peace between Manila and the MILF since March 2001.

REUTERS SI RK1404

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