The Philippine government and a Muslim separatist group on Tuesday resumed peace talks that collapsed 16 months ago, restoring formal efforts to end a decades-long rebellion that has claimed at least 120,000 lives. Negotiators from both sides met at a Kuala Lumpur hotel for the Malaysian-brokered talks, but they were not expected to issue any information until the talks conclude Wednesday, according to a Malaysian official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to make public statements.
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front has been fighting for Muslim self-rule for decades in Mindanao, the southern homeland of minority Muslims in the largely Roman Catholic Philippines. It is the biggest of at least four Muslim rebel groups that have waged a bloody rebellion in the volatile south.
The Moro rebels are present in most southern provinces, including Maguindanao, where a powerful southern clan allied with the Philippine government is suspected in the Nov. 23 massacre of 57 people traveling in an election convoy.
One of the arrested family members, Andal Ampatuan Jr., blamed the Moro rebels for the killings, but rebel spokesman Eid Kabalu and Justice Secretary Agnes Devanadera denied the guerrillas were involved.
The government has deployed thousands of troops to disarm some 2,400 gunmen loyal to the Ampatuans, and Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno said he had asked the Moro rebels for help in blocking the gunmen's escape routes _ a rare cooperation between the two sides. Negotiations with the rebels had fallen apart in August last year when the Philippine Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a preliminary accord on an expanded Muslim autonomous region. A rampage by three rebel commanders upset by the stalled deal sparked months of clashes. The fighting _ which killed hundreds and displaced as many as 750,000 people _ eased in July, and both sides agreed in September to resume talks.
Negotiators said last week the main agenda of the latest talks is the revival of an International Monitoring Team of cease-fire observers, which includes troops from Libya and Brunei. The two sides are also expected to renew an agreement in which the rebels have committed to help government forces interdict kidnap gangs active in the southern Philippines.
Displaced civilians have borne the brunt of the rebellion, which has killed at least 120,000 people since the 1970s. About 120,000 civilians displaced in the latest fighting are still in evacuation centers, fearful of returning home.
In an informal meeting in September, negotiators agreed to set up an International Contact Group, or ICG, to help the two sides "maintain a level of comfort that restores mutual trust" and ensure compliance in any future agreement.
The ICG will initially be composed of Britain, Japan and Turkey plus several international non-governmental groups involved in promoting peace and development in conflict-affected areas. British and Japanese diplomats were present at the hotel where the talks started Tuesday, but they also did not speak to the media.