Philippines, communists aim for peace in 18 months

The parties released a joint statement late yesterday following the end of a week of negotiations in Norway in which they committed to try and sign a "comprehensive agreement" to end hostilities came by June of next year.

"The two panels expressed satisfaction over the achievements of the first round of formal talks," the statement said. The negotiations in Oslo were the first between the government and the National Democratic Front (NDF) sides since 2004.

The communists have been waging a rebellion since 1969 and still have about 5,000 New People's Army guerrillas based in the mainly poor, rural areas of the Philippines. Tens of thousands of people have been killed in the conflict, including dozens of rebels, civilians and security forces over the past few months.

Analysts said before the talks began in Norway that there was little chance of a quick end to the rebellion, with the communists determined to overhaul the country's economic model and railing against corruption by the nation's elite.

In his own statement released late yesterday, chief government negotiator Alex Padilla said even he had begun the talks with a "sense of dread" that they would be the "beginning of a dead end".

"But we have taken the first step," Padilla said.

"We have agreed on a timeframe of 18 months to produce the substantive agreements -- on socio-economic reforms, on political and constitutional reforms, and on the end of hostilities and disposition of forces, leading to a final political settlement."

Nevertheless, Padilla expressed deep caution over the many hurdles still facing the peace negotiators. "It will be hard, harder, perhaps, than anything else we have done in our lives to stay the course. Which, in the first place, asks us to keep faith in the process. Are we up to this?"

The next steps will include a range of lower-level working group meetings over the next few months to cover issues such as as social and economic reforms.

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