POSTED: 9:24 p.m. HST, Feb 8, 2011
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — The Philippine government and the country's largest Muslim rebel group resumed formal peace talks Wednesday for the first time since President Benigno Aquino III took office last year.
Chief government negotiator Marvic Leonen said both sides began a meeting scheduled to run for two days in Malaysia, which has brokered the negotiations since 1997.
The peace process seeks to end a decades-long rebellion by the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Talks collapsed in 2008 when the Philippine Supreme Court rejected a preliminary accord with the government of then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo that would have expanded an existing Muslim autonomous region in the southern Philippines.
After Aquino took office in June, both sides formed new peace panels and worked to resume talks.
Leonen did not give details of Wednesday's meeting at an undisclosed location. He previously said the government would seek a full report about the status of Ameril Umbra Kato, a rebel commander who reportedly has formed his own armed group.
A splintering in the ranks of the rebel front could undermine the effectiveness of the peace talks. The rebels say their leadership is trying win back Kato through dialogue.
Both sides are also expected to discuss extending the mandate of international peace monitors who are helping to maintain a cease-fire in the southern Philippines, the homeland of minority Muslims in this predominantly Roman Catholic country.
Leonen had said in a statement Monday the government was trying to hammer out "a comprehensive political settlement within the soonest possible time."
Last September, the chief rebel negotiator said 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 in the south, and other countries have supported the peace process, hoping it would turn the resource-rich region into an economic growth area instead of a sanctuary for al-Qaida-linked militants.