• Kyodo

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Sadako Ogata, head of the Japan International Cooperation Agency, is urging Muslim rebels to move peace talks forward to end the decades-old secessionist conflict in the southern Philippines, according to a rebel official.

Mohaqher Iqbal, chief negotiator of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, said Ogata, former U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, sounded worried about the talks that hit a snag early this month over territorial issues.

Ogata “expressed some concern, but in the end she sent her best wishes that the peace talks would push through,” Iqbal, 58, said in a recent interview.

Iqbal said Ogata made no fresh “concrete commitment” when she met Monday with the MILF’s central committee officials, including Chairman Al-Haj Murad Ibrahim, at a sprawling rebel camp in Sultan Kudarat on Mindanao.

Iqbal said Ogata stressed that JICA is “ready to assist economic development” in conflict areas in a bid to usher in peace in the region.

However, she stressed the need to seal the negotiations on ending the conflict as soon as possible, saying economic development in the conflict zones could be fast-tracked in a peaceful environment.

The MILF wants JICA’s help in upgrading health and education, saying the conflict has kept many Muslims from going to school. Specifically, the group is looking for upgrades to the madrassas, or religious schools, to include science and mathematics in the curriculum.

Ogata said JICA will “play a role” in developing Mindanao. “I hope it will be a good role.”

She ended her two-day visit Tuesday.

The 12,000-strong MILF, the country’s largest Islamic rebel group, and the government have been holding peace talks since 1997. Earlier this month, they ended abruptly when the MILF rejected a government offer to add 613 villages to an existing five-province Muslim autonomous region. The MILF wants to include more than 1,000 villages.

The government is to draft a new proposal this week to break the impasse.

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