A Malaysian team begins monitoring a ceasefire between the Philippine government and Muslim fighters from next Monday in what is seen as a key step towards ending a thirty-year insurgency.
Formal talks to end a conflict that has killed at least 120,000 people in this overwhelmingly Roman Catholic nation are inching closer under the auspices of Malaysia, a largely Muslim country, but a quick peace deal appears unlikely.
The Philippine military said on Wednesday that an advance team of six Malaysian officers was due to arrive on December 15 to start overseeing a truce with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the country's largest insurgency group with 12,000 fighters.
"About 30 more observers are also expected to arrive in the Philippines in the coming days to form part of the main body of the monitoring team," the armed forces said in a statement.
Malaysia is close to the southern Philippines, the focal point of the insurgency and home to about half of the country's eight million to nine million Muslims.
The government in Manila is also battling communists and other homegrown and regional guerrilla groups, but a peace agreement with the MILF would go a long way towards easing persistent investor concerns about security.
The MILF, citing government delays in activating some parts of the ceasefire accord, has cast doubt on the chances of a deal being signed before elections in the Philippines next May.
But Ghazali Jaafar, the MILF's vice chairman for political affairs, said the presence of the Malaysian monitors on the war-torn southern island of Mindanao would be very important.
"The arrival and participation of the third-party monitoring team will, at least in some way, be a very influential move for change in the implementation of the ceasefire," he told Reuters by telephone. "We're ready to welcome them."
Peace talks delay
A week ago, MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu told Reuters the lack of foreign ceasefire monitors was among three issues delaying the resumption of formal peace talks.
Ex-Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir
Muhammad pushed for peace talks
He said the government should also comply with an agreement to withdraw all criminal cases against MILF leaders and pull its troops out of Buliok, a marshy guerrilla enclave in Mindanao.
Chief government negotiator Silvestre Afable Jr said on Wednesday the peace process was "moving forward very well", but declined to speculate on the timing of an agreement.
"We are now facing three distinct phases in the peace talks. One is the peace talks proper, which are expected to start in the first week of January. The second is the ceasefire
process," Afable told a news conference.
"The third is the rehabilitation process and this is being done through the multilateral trust fund being spearheaded by the World Bank."
Two MILF camps
Manila said this month it had identified two MILF camps in Mindanao where members of Jemaah Islamiah (JI), a Southeast Asian radical Muslim network blamed for deadly bombings in the region, were training - possibly without the knowledge of MILF leaders.
The MILF, which consistently denies it trains JI members, has also been asked by the military to comment on intelligence reports that two of its field commanders had helped JI fighters.
Peace negotiations stalled in late 2001 and nearly collapsed in February when troops overran the MILF complex at Buliok.
Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad, who retired in October, convinced President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to restart the talks.