PORT DICKSON, Malaysia -- Philippine government negotiators and Muslim separatist rebels yesterday broke a deadlock on territorial land claims in the southern Philippines, paving the way for a possible peace accord before the end of the year.
A joint statement -- issued after two days of secret talks in Port Dickson, near Kuala Lumpur -- said the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front were working toward ''the signing of a comprehensive agreement" before the end of the year.
It said the latest round of negotiations had ''successfully wrapped up the consensus points of the ancestral domain issue and placed the peace process on track."
The liberation front, which the Philippine military says has 11,000 men with more than 8,000 firearms, has been fighting for self-rule in the southern Mindanao region for more than two decades.
A 2003 cease-fire is in place while Malaysian-hosted negotiations are underway.
''The light at the end of the tunnel is not only flickering, but it is getting nearer and nearer. We are coming closer to finding a just, lasting, and comprehensive solution to the problem in Mindanao," Mohagher Iqbal, the chief liberation front negotiator, told reporters.
The Philippine government hailed the liberation front for allowing the breakthrough.
''We have reached our goal sooner than expected. The Philippine government is deeply satisfied. We are very happy that the [Moro Islamic Liberation Front] has responded with seriousness and commitment," said the government's chief negotiator, Silvestre Afable.
The key consensus points reached in the talks included measures to address legitimate grievances of Muslims in the southern Philippines, their rights to utilize and develop their ancestral lands, the scope of their territory, and economic cooperation arrangements, the statement said.
Details of these measures are expected to be revealed in a formal agreement that could be signed by late March, which will then lead to the final accord later this year, the statement said.
It said both sides also reaffirmed the need to intensify building programs in the southern Philippines with the support of international community and donor institutions.
The United States has pledged financial support for the region if a peace accord is reached, even though some US officials suspect that certain liberation front members may be collaborating with Al Qaeda-linked Indonesian militants to plot attacks and hold terror training in the southern Philippines.