COTABATO CITY, Philippines, June 9 (Reuters) - Twenty Muslim guerrilla leaders faced two dozen Philippine field commanders in a rare battle of ideas on Saturday, part of efforts to strengthen the ceasefire mechanism.
The combatants exchanged not only views on the peace process, but also mobile phone numbers to sustain the fragile truce and cooperate in stopping kidnap-for-ransom activities in Muslim areas on the southern island of Mindanao.
"This is a breakthrough in our efforts to find peace in the south," Brigadier-General Edgardo Gurrea, head of the government's ceasefire panel, told Reuters.
"These people were enemies on the battlefield, but they were here in friendly discussions to make each other understand their respective positions in the peace talks."
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the largest of four Muslim rebel groups in the south of the mainly Catholic state in Southeast Asia, has been negotiating to end nearly 40 years of conflict that has cost more than 120,000 lives.
Since September 2006, Malaysian-brokered talks have been stalled over the size and wealth of the proposed ancestral homeland for about 3 million Muslims.
Gurrea said the ceasefire agreement between troops and rebels had held since July 2003, reducing tension and helping build confidence between the two groups.
Embassy staff from the United States, Canada, Japan, Malaysia and the European Union observed this first meeting between army brigade and battalion commanders and rebel guerrilla leaders.
Mohaqher Iqbal, the rebels' chief peace negotiator, said the meeting was very timely because delays in resuming talks had affected MILF morale and its confidence in the peace process.
"When there's a delay in the negotiations, the perception of our people is that there could be problems in the talks," Iqbal told Reuters in an interview, adding that peace advocacy activities helped reassure Muslims that talks are still moving.
Iqbal said the MILF was ready to resume exploratory talks with the government in Kuala Lumpur after scheduled May 1-2 meetings were postponed at Manila's request due to elections.
"The ball's in the hands of the government," he said.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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