The largest Muslim rebel group in the Philippines urged the government Wednesday to speed up peace talks, but remained vague about its plans to handle a renegade commander who threatens to derail the process.
The negotiations seek to end a decades-long armed struggle by the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front for Muslim self-rule in the southern Philippines, the homeland of minority Muslims in the mostly Roman Catholic country.
In a speech to start the latest round of two-day talks brokered by Malaysia, rebel chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal noted that negotiations have gone on since 1997, which he called "too long a process."
Iqbal urged the Philippine government to submit a draft of a comprehensive accord when both sides hold their next meeting in Kuala Lumpur. Upcoming talks are expected in June.
Iqbal added that the rebels were working to solve problems with Ameril Umbra Kato, a hard-line commander who opposes the talks because he says they have yielded no major results for years. Kato has formed his own group of a few hundred followers but has indicated that he still belongs to the Moro group.
Rebel leaders have "exerted efforts to make him realize his mistakes," Iqbal said. "But more efforts are still wanting and we are not giving up. The Kato problem is internal to the MILF. Leave this problem to us."
Government negotiator Marvic Leonen voiced concerns about whether a peace deal can be implemented if there were "unaddressed splinter groups." He added that patience was necessary for consultations on complicated issues.
The peace process stalled in 2008 when a preliminary accord expanding an existing autonomous Muslim region fell apart and was later declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. The government has accused Kato and rebel fighters of killing dozens of civilians when they rampaged through Christian communities to protest the failure of talks.
Despite the violence, Iqbal said last September that his group was no longer demanding independence from the Philippines but status similar to a U.S. state.
The United States, which has hundreds of troops training Filipino soldiers, is supporting the peace process with the aim of denying sanctuary for al-Qaida-linked militants.
Muslim insurgents also include the brutal Abu Sayyaf group, notorious for kidnappings and beheadings, and Indonesian militants linked to the regional terrorist network Jemaah Islamiyah.
This week's meeting resolved a dispute over the talks' Malaysian facilitator. Othman Abdul Razak, an official in the Malaysian prime minister's office who mediated for nearly nine years, stepped down after the Philippine government indicated it considers him biased in favor of the rebels.
Tengku Ab Ghafar Tengku Mohamed, a Malaysian ex-diplomat who once served in Manila, replaced Othman.