Talks between Philippine President Benigno Aquino III and the chief of the country's main Muslim rebel group have given a tremendous boost to efforts to end the decades-long insurgency, the guerrillas said Friday.
Aquino met with Murad Ibrahim of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in a suburb of Tokyo late Thursday and discussed ways to push the peace process forward, presidential peace adviser Teresita Deles said.
It was the first time that a Philippine president has met with the chairman of the rebel group since on-and-off peace talks started 14 years ago. Aquino, who has been in office for a year, has placed a high priority on settling the country's long-running Muslim and communist insurgencies.
The rebel group called Aquino's effort to meet Murad a "grand gesture" that gave "a tremendous boost to the peace negotiations."
Chief government negotiator Marvic Leonen said Japan was chosen for the meeting for security reasons and because it is the closest member of the International Contact Group, a grouping of nations that is attempting to promote trust between the two sides. The other members are Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Britain.
Japanese Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto said the meeting was "a meaningful opportunity for smoothly proceeding" with the peace process.
"Japan strongly expects that both parties will continue sincere talks based on the result of the meeting and reach a final peace agreement at an early stage," he said in a statement.
The 11,000-strong rebel group has waged a bloody insurgency for self-rule in the southern Mindanao region, the homeland of minority Muslims in the predominantly Roman Catholic country. The rebels have dropped their demand for independence but are seeking the establishment of a "sub-state" under the central government in Manila.
Leonen said Thursday's meeting was "cordial but consisted of a frank and candid exchange of their views about the frames of the continuing peace talks and some possible approaches that the parties can take to bring about a peaceful settlement."
"Both agreed that the implementation of any agreement should happen within the current administration. Both agreed to fast-track the negotiations," he said.
Leonen refused to give details of the two-hour meeting because negotiators still need to work on the points raised. He said, however, that the meeting did not supplant formal negotiations.
"All I can say is it was very positive," he said. "My marching orders from the president is a pragmatic, principled and a politically, economically and socially viable solution."
The last major clashes between government and rebel forces followed the rejection by the Supreme Court of a proposed preliminary peace agreement in August 2008 on grounds that it was unconstitutional.
More than 700,000 people were displaced before the fighting subsided and the two sides agreed to resume talks, with the first meeting held in February.
The conflict has killed more than 120,000 people and stunted development of the resource-rich Mindanao region.
Aquino's mother, late President Corazon Aquino, met 25 years ago with the leader of another Muslim rebel group, the Moro National Liberation Front. Peace negotiations with that group were concluded 10 years later.
Associated Press writers Teresa Cerojano and Jim Gomez contributed to this report.