On Tuesday, Othman Abdul Razak, a special adviser to Malaysia's prime minister, told Reuters that negotiators from Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), now in Malaysia for talks, were putting the final touches to a preliminary agreement.

"We are quite optimistic," Othman said. "Everyone is quite optimistic. There is a groundswell in support of the peace process, especially from the Muslims."

Othman, a strategic adviser to successive prime ministers and a bureaucrat with 33 years' experience, is facilitating the talks on behalf of Malaysia, seen by both sides as neutral.

A final agreement on the issue of ancestral domain could be reached by late March or early April. "That is our timeline," Othman said. He said that a full peace accord could follow before the Muslim fasting month begins in late September.

Timeline

"If everything goes on smoothly, we can have it probably before Ramadan," Othman said.

Malaysia has been hosting talks between Manila and the MILF, the largest of four Muslim rebel groups in the Philippines since March 2001.

The 12,000-strong MILF has been fighting for an independent Islamic state in the impoverished but mineral-rich southern island of Mindanao. The conflict has stunted the island's development and hurt the nation's overall investment climate.

Hearts and mines

A deal on Muslim ancestral lands would define boundaries and determine who has ownership and mining rights, Othman said.

"We expect countries like Japan to come in to do the rehabilitation and development"

Othman Abdul Razak,
special adviser to Malaysian prime minister

He said the current talks also touched on the importance of persuading local people of the benefits of peace and of securing international aid to rebuild and develop the area.

"All these are to run in tandem with the negotiations as they head toward final agreement," he said.

"We expect countries like Japan to come in to do the rehabilitation and development. The problem is they will come in only after the signing. They fear for their safety and also whatever assistance be translated into weapons."

Lack of support

So far, international support has been limited. Only Malaysia, Brunei and Libya have deployed a team overseeing the ceasefire on Mindanao.

Othman said there should be offers from other countries to help develop infrastructure, train manpower and create jobs.

"We are appealing to the international community to lend support in capacity-building before the final agreement. We need it now," he said.

Concerns remain over how to
rehabilitate fighters

What will the MILF's guerrillas do if peace breaks out?

"In peacetime, what do you do with the fighters? You have to make them become economically useful citizens. Otherwise, they become criminals. That's the danger."

Othman played down concerns about alleged MILF links to groups such as Jemaah Islamiah, the Southeast Asian network blamed for a string of bombings in Indonesia.

"There's always been concerns about the existence of terrorists in the midst of MILF," he said.

"I think this is much exaggerated. MILF is aware that JI will not serve their interest. It will only derail their struggle, their objectives, what they been struggling for 40 years."