MANILA, Philippines (AP) - Philippine officials and the largest Muslim rebel group in the country said Wednesday that they expect to conclude a peace accord as early as next month despite unresolved issues, including the delicate task of disarming the 11,000-strong guerrilla force.
Government negotiator Miriam Coronel Ferrer and rebel negotiator Mohagher Iqbal of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front separately said that a peace pact could be reached in May or June. They expressed confidence that the remaining issues could be resolved in the next round of negotiations this month in Malaysia, which has been brokering the talks.
"I believe it will be signed because there is no other way except to move forward," Iqbal told a news conference in Manila when asked whether a pact could be reached as early as next month.
Iqbal called on Malaysia and other foreign governments to continue backing the yearslong talks, saying he and fellow guerrillas now believe that peace can reign in once battle-wracked Muslim regions.
"We had put one foot in the path of peace while we struggle to pull the other from the comfort of our mountain lairs," he said. "We are embarking on a gradual and calculated shift in our struggle from the barrels of the Kalashnikov into the mighty strokes of the pen."
Despite differences, both sides have made steady progress in efforts to peacefully settle one of Asia's longest-running insurgencies.
The Muslim separatist uprising in the country's south, homeland of minority Muslims in the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines, has left more than 100,000 people dead since the early 1970s, held back progress in impoverished Muslim regions and sparked fears that rebel strongholds could help breed al-Qaida-linked militants, who have been crippled by crackdowns elsewhere.
Last October, President Benigno Aquino III's administration and the guerrillas signed a preliminary peace agreement that served as a road map to granting minority Muslims a more powerful autonomous region, called the Bangsamoro, with a greater share of government revenues and resources than an existing Muslim region.
The framework accord outlines general agreements on major issues, including the extent of power, revenues and territory to be granted to the new Muslim autonomous region. Under the accord, large numbers of army troops would gradually be replaced by a regional police force that could enlist qualified guerrillas.
A 15-member commission composed of government and Muslim rebel representatives convened its first meeting in Manila on Wednesday to craft a proposed law by 2014 that would create the new Muslim autonomous region. The law would have to be approved by Congress.
Armed followers of a Filipino Muslim royal clan barged into Malaysia's Sabah state in February to revive an old territorial claim, sparking deadly clashes, but Malaysia has continued brokering the talks despite the crisis.
Philippine officials and the rebels said ownership of Sabah, a vast oil- and gas-rich frontier, should be settled diplomatically by the Philippine and Malaysian governments and should not affect the peace negotiations.
Allowing the Sabah crisis to delay the talks would be a folly, according to Iqbal.
"If we postpone or we change the venue ... we'll lose two," he said. "The problem of Sabah has not yet been resolved and then the talks become a casualty."