Manila, July 10, 2003 (Star) President Arroyo held talks yesterday with Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi to help jumpstart negotiations aimed at ending the Muslim separatist rebellion in Min-danao.

But officials said after the talks that "technical obstacles" remained in Manila’s effort to forge a peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

The Philippine government and the MILF forged an initial pact last month in Malaysia, which is helping mediate the conflict, to begin peace talks.

But the process has been blocked by a dispute on the lifting of arrest warrants and bounties on the heads of top rebel negotiators.

Kuala Lumpur had previously insisted the lifting of the warrants and bounties was essential as part of "confidence building measures" to bring the two parties together.

The Department of Justice was prepared to lift the restrictions only if the MILF made a formal application in the courts, Foreign Affairs Secretary Blas Ople told a media briefing.

Ople termed it as part of the "technical obstacles" to the peace deal.

The MILF had said that it would be premature for it to seek redress in local courts because of its long-standing principle of not recognizing the Philippine Constitution.

Abdullah, who made a four-hour stopover in Manila en route to a three-day official visit to Japan, did not speak to reporters. He was accompanied by, among other officials, Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar.

"The Malaysian guests were informed by the President that the effect of these warrants can be suspended by the court, but first the MILF respondents through their lawyers should initiate the proceedings for a review so that the court can decide," Ople said.

The warrants against MILF chief Hashim Salamat and others were issued in connection with deadly bombings in the southern Philippines this year.

Under the Philippines legal system, only the courts can lift the warrants.

The 12,500-strong MILF has been waging a 25-year rebellion for the establishment of an independent Islamic state in Mindanao.

High-level talks were suspended early this year when Mrs. Arroyo accused the MILF of harboring terrorists responsible for a spate of attacks in the South, including the bombings of an airport and a wharf in Davao City in March and April that left 38 people dead and over a hundred others wounded.

Mrs. Arroyo has also invited Malaysia to lead a team comprising Islamic nations to the Philippines to monitor a ceasefire deal ahead of prospective high-level peace talks with the MILF rebels.

But Ople said his Malaysian counterpart, Syed Hamid, told him that Kuala Lumpur was "still completing the required consultative process" within the government on the monitoring role.

Other Islamic nations proposed to be included in the police-military monitoring team are Bahrain, Bangladesh, Brunei and Libya, Ople said.

During his three-day official visit to Tokyo, Abdullah will hold talks with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and speak to Japanese businessmen. — AFP

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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