MANILA - Seeking to end a decades-long conflict in the Muslims-majority south, the largest Muslim group in the Philippines eyes to reach a peace deal with the government this year.
"We can see the light at the end of the tunnel and believe we are 85 percent sure it will be signed by the end of the year," Mohagher Iqbal, chief negotiator of Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), told Agence France-Presse (AFP), referring to the roadmap both sides have been working on.
Iqbal said the final announcement would come during the next round of peace talks in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur early next month.
"This meeting is really the peak time to hammer out some of the outstanding issues and come out with an agreement."
A similar hope is echoed by the Philippine government.
"We are looking at this framework agreement as the over-arching architecture of the peace process," government chief negotiator Marvic Leonen said.
"In this agreement, the entire roadmap of the peace process can be discerned."
MILF, the country's biggest Muslim group, has been struggling for an independent state in the mineral-rich southern region of Mindanao for some three decades now.
The conflict between Muslim independence-seekers and Maoist guerrillas have killed 160,000 people and displaced 2 million in the last 40 years.
Since opening peace talks with the government in 2003, the MILF has said it is willing to accept autonomy rather than independence.
Negotiators from both sides were still to decide on the toughest issues in the peace roadmap.
Leonen, the government chief negotiator, said the roadmap would outline a new autonomous region in parts of Mindanao and spell out broad plans for a power-sharing deal there with the MILF.
"There (is) still some hard bargaining ahead," Iqbal said.
Among these issues still to be resolved are the extent of the MILF's power in the autonomy and the exact terms of wealth sharing.
In 2008, both parties came close to a peace deal under the previous administration led by then-president Gloria Arroyo.
According to the deal, MILF would have been given control over 700 townships and villages.
Facing furious protests from leading Christian politicians in the south, as well as the influential Catholic Church, the Supreme Court ruled the deal as "unconstitutional".
This time, however, the government negotiator said they have been consulting with officials in the south as well as congressional leaders in Manila to ensure their support for the planned new deal and avoid a repeat of 2008.
"We should be able to tell the MILF we will defend it tooth and nail and we are prepared for the trajectory of the peace agreement," Leonon said.
Mindanao, the birthplace of Islam in the Philippines, is home to more than 5 million Muslims.The island is home to vast untapped reserves of gold, copper and other minerals, as well being one of the country's most important farming regions.
Reproduced with permission from OnIslam.net