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Philippine government, MILF meet to discuss delayed Muslim self-rule bill

MANILA -- Philippine government and rebel negotiators began a new round of meetings Friday to draft a Muslim self-rule law after falling behind a timetable laid out in a peace treaty, officials said.

A peace pact signed in March committed President Benigno Aquino and the largest Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), to pass a law creating an autonomous Muslim region by mid-2016, when his six-year presidency ends.

In return, the 12,000-member MILF would disarm and help the national government to improve the lot of Filipino Muslims, who are among the poorest and most marginalized in the mainly Catholic nation of 100 million.

However, Aquino failed to submit the bill to Congress on Monday, with the MILF suggesting the government was seeking to renege on its peace treaty commitments by diluting the wording of the proposed law.

“(The) government intends to see through the full implementation of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro,” Teresita Deles, Aquino's adviser on the peace process, said in a statement as the two sides met in the southern city of Davao.

Chief government negotiator Miriam Ferrer said the two sides were expected to meet over the next 10 days, by which time they would have produced a version of the bill that was acceptable to both sides.

Muslim rebels have been battling for independence or autonomy in the southern islands since the 1970s, with the conflict claiming tens of thousands of lives.

A commission made up of MILF and government representatives drafted a version of the planned bill and submitted it to Aquino for review in April, but the president said in June that its language needed further refinement.

An MILF statement last month alleged that Aquino's version of the bill “dilutes” the law and would have “departed from the letter and spirit” of the peace pact.

A fresh statement released by the organization on its website on Friday struck a more conciliatory tone, saying the delay was “no reason to give up.”

“The road ahead still offers some promises ... All (that) is needed is a little more time, and more importantly both sides must be truthful and faithful to the framework agreement on the Bangsamoro,” it said.

“It is better for the government and the MILF to continue the path of peace ... rather than go back to where they started, which is not only practical but also laden with dangers and uncertainties,” it added.

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