MANILA, Nov 15 (Reuters) The Philippines and the country's largest Islamic rebel group have overcome a major hurdle in talks on a proposed ancestral Muslim homeland by agreeing on the area's boundaries, a senior official said today.
The government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) have been talking on and off for a decade about a self-governed territory for Muslims in the south of the largely Catholic country to end a brutal, 40-year-old conflict.
Disagreements over the size and wealth of the proposed territory had delayed the talks for over a year and was a major stumbling block to an eventual permanent peace deal.
Today's talks in Kuala Lumpur appeared to remove the hurdle though others remained. No MILF officials were available to confirm or deny the report.
''It's definitely very good news,'' Jesus Dureza, the presidential adviser on the peace process, told Reuters.
Dureza said the two sides hoped to sign a formal agreement on ancestral domain early next year before moving on to discuss what sort of government the homeland will have.
That question is one of the most vexing as political clans with large private armies in the south would likely use force to prevent any loss of influence in one of the most resource-rich areas of the country.
Manila and the MILF have already signed two agreements on security and rehabilitation of conflict-affected areas, where a sometime uneasy truce has held since July 2003.
Under the agreement reached today, a proposed Bangsamoro Juridical Entity would cover land and maritime territory up to the 15-km municipal water limits, and all the maritime resources within that area would be shared.
The MILF and the Philippine government were expected to make public further details in Kuala Lumpur later today.
Muslims in the south of the Philippines have been fighting for their own territory for decades. The conflict has killed more than 120,000 people and displaced at least 2 million since the late 1960s.
Malaysia has been hosting the peace talks and Dureza, who is currently in Manila, said the Malaysians had agreed to extend the peacekeeping duties of a 60-member team composed of soldiers, police and diplomats from Malaysia, Brunei, Libya and Japan.
''The International Monitoring Team would also extend its tour by 3-6 months depending on the progress of the talks,'' he added.
REUTERS JT DS1301