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Aquino In Talks With Mindanao Rebel Group

MANILA, Philippines, Aug. 8 (UPI) — Philippine President Benigno Aquino and the leader of the main Muslim rebel group agreed during a secret meeting in Tokyo to speed up peace negotiations.

The two-hour meeting — described by The Manila Times newspaper as a “coup” for Aquino — was conducted late Thursday at a hotel near Narita International Airport.

Aquino’s discussions with Al Haj Murad Ibrahim, chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, could lead to an end to more than three decades of fighting between the rebels and government soldiers, police and security forces in Mindanao in the southern Philippines.

Between 120,000 and 150,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the struggle in which rebels seek an independent Mindanao region.

One of Aquino’s election pledges in June 2010 was for more negotiations with the country’s various insurgency groups, including the MILF and rebel communists. Members of Aquino’s peace process panel met MILF representatives in February in Malaysia.

Marvic Leonen, Manila’s chief peace negotiator, who was at the Tokyo meeting, said the talks between Aquino and Ibrahim were “cordial.” They had “a frank and candid exchange of views about the frames of the continuing peace talks and some possible approaches that the parties can take to bring about a peaceful settlement.”

Both leaders agreed “to fast track the negotiations” and that the implementation of any agreement should happen within the current administration, Leonen said.

A fragile cease-fire has been in place since 2003. The meeting between Aquino and Ibrahim was the most high-level discussion between the federal government and the MILF in nearly 15 years of on-again, off-again peace talks aimed at settling the question of status for the region.

The MILF has softened its demand for total independence but is looking for more regional autonomy for the mainly Muslim region within the predominantly Roman Catholic republic.

Accompanying Aquino were the president’s peace process adviser Teresita Deles, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and National Security Adviser Cesar Garcia.

A statement by the MILF said the talks were “honest and intimate” and geared toward “concerns related to the negotiated political settlement of the Bangsamoro question.”

“Bangsamoro” is the political term used by the MILF and other Muslim groups in the Philippines to describe Filipino Muslims.

The government and the MILF also have had periods of cooperation in an effort to not derail peace talks and the cease-fire.

In November 2009, the MILF helped behind the scenes to free the Rev. Michael Sinnott, a Catholic priest, and were able to negotiate with disaffected rebel factions that were holding Sinnott hostage to hand him hand over.

Sinnott, 79 and a native of Wexford, Ireland, was ordained in 1954 with the Missionary Society of St. Columban, an order that has been working with the poor of the Philippines since 1929.

Despite the good work done by the Columbans, the order suffered a kidnapping in August 2001 that resulted in the death of the Rev. Rufus Halley, who was killed by his abductors.

UPI - United Press International, Inc.

Since 1907, United Press International (UPI) has been a leading provider of critical information to media outlets, businesses, governments and researchers worldwide.

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