MILF ease up on claims for peace talks

PHILIPPINES NEWS SERVICE — The biggest stumbling block to the resumption of the peace talks between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front appeared to have been cleared away after the Muslim rebels agreed to lower the number of villages that they wanted declared as their ancestral land.

The rebels’ chief negotiator said the MILF had agreed to a number even lower than the 613 villages or barangays that the government offered to form part of the Bangsamoro ancestral domain once a peace agreement was signed.

MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal said the rebel group would seek a “reasonable number” of villages—less than their original demand of 1,000 and even lower than the offer of the government, provided that the villages were geographically connected.

“As early as May, we had already reached this reasonable number. We had agreed to a lower figure below the 613 they had offered, but these villages have to be geographically adjoined, not [based on] demographic[ s] as they originally wanted, which would have meant these villages would be scattered all over Mindanao,” Iqbal said in a telephone interview.

Exploratory talks with the government are scheduled to resume in Malaysia next month. Kuala Lumpur is brokering the peace talks, which bogged down on several issues—the ancestral domain dispute among them—last September.

The MILF’s ancestral domain claim is patterned after the territorial agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front that gave rise to the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

As this developed, the government has agreed to review its implementation of the 1996 peace agreement with the MNLF in a tripartite meeting hosted by the Organization of Islamic Conference in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on July 17 to 19.

Iqbal said he was hopeful that next month’s exploratory talks brokered by Malaysia would finally resolve the ancestral domain issue, even as he questioned the priorities of the government panel.

“We want to focus on the main issue, which is ancestral domain. But what they want to be included in the agenda are the side issues such as the extension [of the life] of the International Monitoring Team and the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group, which are all helpful but will not really move the negotiations forward,” he added.

The monitoring team oversees the implementation of the three-year-old ceasefire forged by both parties, while the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group governs joint operations between the military and MILF rebels in fighting “common enemies,” and includes cooperation in such efforts as the one intended to free abducted Italian priest Giancarlo Bossi.

But presidential adviser on the peace process Jesus Dureza remained non-committal on the resumption of next month’s talks.

“Until we receive final word from Malaysia, we cannot say for sure when the talks would resume,” Dureza said.

As for the tripartite meeting in Jeddah, Dureza said, the participation of detained MNLF chairman Nur Misuari was still uncertain because the Makati Regional Trial Court had yet to decide on his petition to travel to Saudi Arabia.

Misuari is under house arrest while a court is trying a rebellion case filed against him on his role in an armed attack staged by MNLF fighters on government troops in Jolo, Sulu, in November 2001.