MANILA, May 30 (Reuters) - The Philippine government and the country's largest Islamic rebel group are moving closer to a deal on defining Muslim ancestral land in the south of the mainly Catholic nation, guerrilla leaders said on Wednesday.
Talks between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to end one of the world's longest-running Islamic insurgencies have been stalled since September over the size and wealth of the proposed Muslim region in the south.
The nearly 40-year-old conflict has killed more than 120,000 people, displaced 2 million in the south and stunted growth in the resource-rich troubled southern island of Mindanao.
"It's almost in the bag," said Eid Kabalu, MILF spokesman. "The two sides are prepared to resume negotiations right after the dust of the elections settles. We're close to an agreement on the territory issue."
The two sides were supposed to hold informal talks on May 1-2 in Kuala Lumpur but the government cancelled the meeting due to local and congressional elections on May 14, Kabalu said.
The rebel spokesman said the MILF doubted whether a final peace deal could be reached even after the ancestral domain issue is settled due to government's firm position to invoke constitutional processes in the negotiations.
The MILF opposes any referendum tied to a peace deal, describing the process as the government's "unilateral" decision.
"The ball is in the hands of the government," Mohaqher Iqbal, the rebels' chief peace negotiator, told Reuters in a telephone interview, adding the MILF has stood firm on its position to expand the Muslim autonomous region in the south.
"When you deal with the government, it's not as easy as like buying a carabao (buffalo). We're just trying to reclaim the right of every Muslims in the south."
In December, the government peace panel offered to recognise the right of Muslims for self-determination, which it has never done in over three decades of fighting and intermittent talks.
Initially, Manila has offered to expand the six provinces of Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) with more than 600 Muslim-dominated villages in Christian provinces on the southern island of Mindanao.
But, the MILF countered with a demand for an additional 1,000 villages on top of the government's offer, to cover Muslim areas as far away as the Davao and Zamboanga provinces.
Some local officials in the south opposed the MILF proposal and demanded a referendum asking the people whether they agree to be part of the proposed expanded ARMM.
The ARMM was created as part of peace negotiations with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the oldest Muslim rebel group, that signed a deal with government in 1996.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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