Filipino gov't, rebels aim for 2012 peace deal

Negotiators for the Philippines government and communist rebels agreed Monday on a road map for continued peace talks aimed at resolving one of Asia's longest-running conflicts by June 2012.

Ending the first round of long-stalled peace negotiations in Norway, the two sides agreed to meet again in April and every two months after that.

"Tonight finds us on the zigzag path to peace," government negotiator Alexander Padilla said. "But we have taken the first step."

Rebel negotiator Luis Jalandoni said a cease-fire declared by both sides during the weeklong talks outside the Norwegian capital "served as a confidence builder" for the first formal peace negotiations in six years.

"It has been a roller coaster ride all the way, and until a few moments ago, no one could be quite sure whether the talks would end up on a high or a low point," he said. Jalandoni added that "just and lasting peace" could only be achieved through socio-economic and political reforms in the Philippines.

Both sides said they were considering extending the cease-fire but no decisions had been made.

The rebels said Sunday they had freed a policeman and a soldier and would release a third captive partly to strengthen the negotiations.

A fourth captive, army soldier Bryan Canedo was still being held and questioned after he was seized Feb. 7 in Compostela Valley Province, the rebels said.

Battle setbacks have weakened the Maoist rebels, who reached their peak in the mid-1980s, when their fighters numbered about 25,000. However, the military still regards the rebels as the country's most serious security threat after Muslim rebels and al-Qaida-linked militants in the south.

Government negotiators hope that last year's election of reformist President Benigno Aquino III on the promise he would reduce poverty and improve governance will soften the rural-based insurgency, which has survived decades of military crackdown.

Peace talks stalled in 2004 after the rebels accused then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's government of instigating their inclusion in U.S. and European terrorist blacklists.

A joint statement following the talks in Norway said a draft comprehensive agreement on ending hostilities "may be completed and signed by the Panels in June 2012."

Both government and rebel negotiators said the outcome of the first round of talks was uncertain until the very end because of a lack of trust between the parties.

"It will take rounds of negotiations to build that trust again," Padilla said.