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Philippine Muslim Rebels Drop Independence Demand

The chief government negotiator in peace talks with Muslim rebels on Thursday welcomed a rebel leader's statement that his group is no longer demanding independence from the Philippines and instead is seeking a status similar to a U.S. state.

The rebel announcement Wednesday "will definitely pave the way to finding an understanding for a politically feasible arrangement that maintains the territorial integrity and the fundamental premise of people's sovereignty in one republic," law school dean Marvic Leonen said in a statement.

"We hope that there can be a lot of common ground" with the rebels, Leonen, head of the government negotiating panel, later told The Associated Press. The rebels have been fighting for Muslim self-rule for about four decades.

Mohagher Iqbal, chief negotiator for the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front, told local reporters on Wednesday that his group wanted a "substate" that he likened to a U.S. state. He said it would not be independent and would be under a "unitary government."

"It is not stated in our proposal specifically, but the formulation that we have put up is really for the creation of a ... substate arrangement," Iqbal was quoted as saying.

Leonen said it was a "welcome clarification" of the rebel position.

"We are willing to listen to the concept that they are willing to propose," he told the AP.

Talks collapsed in 2008 after the Supreme Court rejected a preliminary accord that would have expanded an existing Muslim autonomous region in the southern Philippines.

A spokeswoman for the court said then that eight of 15 justices voted to declare the deal unconstitutional because the proposed Muslim homeland would lead to its "eventual independence," which would violate the country's "physical and territorial integrity."

After the court threw out the proposed agreement, rebel negotiator Musib Buat said the rebels had been "pushed to the wall" and the only option left for them was "to revert to the original goal of independence" and campaign for "decolonization" with support from the United Nations and the International Court of Justice.

Iqbal gave scant details about what the rebels sought to establish, saying only that the Muslim substate would not wield four powers exercised by a central government — national defense, foreign affairs, currency and coinage, and postal services. He said it would not maintain a separate armed forces and would only have troops for "internal security."

He could not be reached Thursday for further comment.

Government and rebel negotiators met shortly before President Benigno Aquino III took office in June and agreed to resume talks. Both sides have formed their negotiating panels but no date has been set for a resumption of the Malaysian-brokered talks.

Iqbal said a final peace accord could be completed in less than two years "if the Philippine government is really serious" in pursuing peace.

More than 120,000 people have died in the decades-long conflict in the resource-rich southern Mindanao region, the homeland of minority Muslims in the predominantly Roman Catholic country.

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