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Philippine emergency delays Muslim peace talks

Written by: Staff
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MANILA, Mar 6 (Reuters) The Philippine government's hunt for coup plotters has briefly delayed the final stage of informal talks with Muslim rebels to try to end nearly 40 years of conflict in the south, negotiators said today.

Representatives from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the government were due to meet in Malaysia on March 5-7 to thrash out specifics of territory, governance and sharing natural resources for a Muslim homeland on Mindanao island.

But Manila's declaration of emergency rule after the discovery of a coup plot last month has delayed the talks aimed at ending a Muslim separatist insurgency in the mainly Roman Catholic country that has killed more than 120,000 people.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo ended the week-long emergency on Friday after deciding the coup threat had receded.

''The events in Manila have, to a certain extent, affected the talks,'' Mohaqher Iqbal, head of the MILF's peace panel, told Reuters by phone from his base in Mindanao.

Iqbal said he expected the informal meeting would now be held around the middle of March, paving the way for the first formal talks in three years to begin, possibly in April rather than late March as initially hoped.

Iqbal said both sides were waiting for a new start date from neighbouring Malaysia, which has hosted the talks since 2001.

Jesus Dureza, Arroyo's peace adviser, said Kuala Lumpur had informed Manila today of its intention to reset the talks because it wanted to collate the position papers of both sides.

''Our team submitted its position on the ancestral domain issue only last Saturday,'' Dureza told reporters. ''The Malaysians were still reviewing the papers.'' Talks between Manila and the MILF stalled for nearly four months last year due to a political crisis spawned by allegations of vote-rigging and graft against Arroyo.

The two sides hope to sign a landmark peace deal by the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on September 16.

REUTERS OM BS1616

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