The Philippine government and a Muslim separatist group 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.
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.
Negotiators from both sides began a two-day round of Malaysian-brokered talks Tuesday at a hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's main city.
The chief Philippine government representative voiced confidence of eventually achieving "a peace settlement that is just, lasting, acceptable and truly beneficial to the Muslim Filipinos in Mindanao and to the entire Filipino people."
"I am excited and brimming with optimism because we have, at last, reached this day when we formally resume the peace negotiations," Rafael Seguis said at a closed-door ceremony attended by diplomats from Britain, Japan and Turkey, according to a text of his opening remarks sent to the media in the Philippine capital, Manila.
Mohagher Iqbal, chief negotiator for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, also was quoted in a statement as saying that "there is no other way ... except the path of peace."
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 fell 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.
A statement said both sides are discussing 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.
Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak _ through a message read by the country's facilitator of the talks _ said his government hoped a final peace agreement would be reached before Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo steps down after national elections in May. He praised Arroyo for her commitment to reaching a peace accord.
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 comprise Britain, Japan and Turkey, plus several international non-governmental groups involved in promoting peace and development in conflict-affected areas.