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Philippine peace deal seen as unlikely

world Updated: Feb 17, 2009 12:49 IST

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President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Muslim rebels are unlikely to forge a peace pact in her remaining 16 months in office but should strive to end seven months of fighting that have killed about 200 people, the International Crisis Group said on Tuesday.

The clashes that broke out between government troops and the 11,600-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front last August in the country's south have displaced thousands of people and are impeding Malaysian-brokered peace talks and efforts to rid the region of foreign Islamic radicals, the Brussels-based security think tank said.

"No settlement is likely during the remaining tenure of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo," the ICG wrote in its latest analysis. "The two sides are too far apart, the potential spoilers too numerous, and the political will too weak."

Presidential adviser Avelino Razon remained optimistic, saying "it's never too late to negotiate for peace. Any delay will mean more suffering."

Negotiations between the government and the rebels fell apart in August when the Supreme Court blocked the signing of a preliminary accord that would have expanded a Muslim autonomous region in southern Mindanao region, where a Muslim separatist war has raged for decades.

The accord had been challenged by Christian politicians who feared they would lose land, power and clout to minority-Muslims. As a result, a bloody rampage was unleashed in predominantly Christian communities in August, provoking a major military offensive that displaced more than half a million people. The clashes have eased to sporadic fighting, but more than 300,000 villagers have refused to return to their homes and farms, officials said.

The government has filed criminal charges against three commanders it blames for the bloodshed, but they remain at large. The rebel front backs its commanders and has called for an independent investigation.

Razon said that the government is ready to resume talks with the rebels to discuss ways of overcoming major differences and reviving a Malaysian-led international cease-fire monitoring contingent, which was disbanded last year amid renewed clashes. But it remains unclear how the impasse over the three commanders and the unsigned accord on autonomy can be overcome even if the US-backed talks resume, the ICG said.