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Manila, rebels seeks more time to wrap up talks

Written by: Staff
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MANILA, Mar 23 (Reuters) Differences over the sharing of strategic resources has delayed the signing of an informal deal between the Filipino government and Islamic rebels to end nearly 40 years of conflict, a government negotiator said today.

Representatives of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the government ended two days of informal talks on Wednesday without settling issues of territory, governance and resources in the southern Philippines, where the MILF wants a Muslim homeland.

''There was not enough time to wrap up talks on the ancestral domain,'' said Rodolfo Garcia, a retired general and a member of the government's peace panel.

''There was a lot of haggling. This was expected from a revolutionary group seeking to strike the best deal from government.'' Garcia said the two sides would need another round of talks to thrash out specifics of a deal on Muslims' ancestral rights on the southern island of Mindanao, the country's fruit basket and a largely untapped repository of resources such as gold and copper.

He declined to go into specifics of the bargaining, which took place in neighbouring Malaysia.

''We've settled the broader aspect of the agreement, but we're being weighed down by the specific details. We've exchanged our position papers, but there's a lot of back and forth shuffling of the documents,'' he added.

The talks could resume early in April, when both sides will attempt again to break the deadlock and fix a date for the signing of a deal on ancestral domain, a key part of a process to end a conflict that has killed more than 120,000 people.

''These issues were not insurmountable,'' said Eid Kabalu, a spokesman for the MILF, the largest of four Muslim separatist rebel groups in the southern Philippines.

''The talks are moving and we're confident that the two sides would reach consensus at some point.'' Garcia said the government understood the position of the rebels, who are concerned it will not keep its promises after another Muslim group, the Moro National Liberation Front, accused the government of undermining a separate 1996 peace deal.

The conclusion of informal discussions would pave the way for the first formal talks between the MILF, which broke away from the MNLF in 1984, and the government in three years.

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

REUTERS SK SSC1208

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