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Chief negotiator with Muslim rebels quits

Sources in the Govt and rebel peace panels raise doubts about the resumption of talks in Malaysia next month.

world Updated: Jun 16, 2007 15:41 IST
Manny Mogato

The Philippines' chief negotiator with Muslim separatists has resigned, sources in the government and rebel peace panels said on Saturday, raising doubts about the resumption of talks in Malaysia next month.



Silvestre Afable's resignation came at a time when the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) were close to restarting talks on a proposed ancestral homeland for 3 million Muslims in the south of the country.



"This is a setback," Mohaqher Iqbal, the rebels' chief peace negotiator, told Reuters in a telephonic interview.



"This is not a very good indication. This could affect the entire peace process. At a personal level, we could be starting all over again."



The government of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has not officially announced Afable's decision to quit the peace panel, where he has served since the two sides agreed to return to negotiations after hostilities erupted in February 2003.



A member of the government peace panel told Reuters he got a mobile phone text message from Afable late on Friday saying he had decided to quit.



Afable gave no reason and it was not known what triggered his decision. Calls to his telephone were not answered.



"He was getting frustrated because he was not getting enough support from the president and from her security officials," said another member of the peace panel, who declined to be named.



"He felt there were some people in the Cabinet who were not serious in finding a lasting solution to the Muslim rebellion in the south."



The government has been talking with Muslim rebels to end nearly 40 years of conflict that has killed more than 120,000 people and displaced 2 million in the south of the mainly Roman Catholic country.



Talks over the size and wealth of a proposed Muslim homeland have been stalled since September 2006 although backroom negotiations continued, resulting in a breakthrough in December when Manila agreed to grant Muslims the right of self-determination.



Talks were set to resume in Malaysia in July, negotiators have said.



"We were in the process of wrapping up the details on territory and we were ready to resume negotiations in three to four weeks," said a peace panel member, who expressed surprise over Afable's resignation.



"He was very optimistic about the talks early this week. There was no indication he was leaving us behind. We were caught by surprise. I still have to talk to him about this."



A Malaysian official familiar with the peace process said it was too early to say if Afable's resignation would affect the talks.



"He has been very effective in building trust with MILF leaders," the Malaysian official told Reuters, referring to Afable. "He has contributed a lot in narrowing the gap and has deep understanding of the complexity of the process."


(With additional reporting by Abdul Jalil Hamid in Kuala Lumpur)