A Philippine negotiator urged the country's largest Muslim rebel group on Monday to forge a peace accord within three months despite a recent major clash with government troops.
Chief government negotiator Marvic Leonen expressed optimism about a possible accord as talks resumed Monday with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Malaysia, which has been helping broker the yearslong negotiations. The 11,000-strong group has been waging a rebellion for Muslim self-rule.
Leonen said an early agreement will allow both sides to implement it and make adjustments before reformist President Benigno Aquino III ends his term in 2016.
"In our reckoning, the golden opportunity to craft such an agreement is this first quarter of this year," Leonen said in a statement at the talks' resumption. "We think that this is possible."
Leonen did not say what sparked his optimism.
Moro rebel Vice Chairman Ghazali Jaafar said the guerrillas shared the government's optimism but added that any accord should be strong enough to draw wide acceptance and discourage other rebellions.
Jaafar, who was not present in the negotiations in Malaysia, speculated that both sides may be starting to overcome differences on a rebel demand for the formation of a so-called Bangsamoro State Government to administer a Muslim autonomous region.
Aquino met Muslim rebel chief Al Haj Murad Ebrahim in Tokyo in August last year to discuss ways of bringing the negotiations forward. Rebel negotiators, however, rejected a government proposal for Muslim autonomy a few weeks later but said they would continue talks.
An Oct. 18 clash killed 19 soldiers and six guerrillas on southern Basilan island. The heavy military loss led to calls for Aquino to break a truce and order an offensive against the rebels. He rejected the calls and decided to pursue talks.