Plans for a peace deal next year between the Philippine government and an Islamic separatist group may be thwarted after a dispute over a draft agreement on the boundaries for a Muslim homeland, officials said.
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rejected a proposed draft over the extent of territory that would fall under Muslim control in the impoverished Mindanao region at the start of talks in Malaysia, causing Saturday's meeting to be abruptly called off, officials said.
"There have been differences in the proposed text on concepts of territory and resources, including elements of governance," chief Philippine government negotiator Rodolfo Garcia told the press.
"Realistically, given this present situation, it might be difficult to reach the [January] target. We are going to review the proposal that we have brought here and hope to be able to resolve the differences," he said.
Both sides hoped to reach an agreement next month on the "ancestral domain" agenda after years of wrangling.
Once the ancestral domain agreement is forged, both sides are to discuss other issues -- such as the type of government for the territory -- in order to formulate a comprehensive peace pact, possibly by August, officials have said.
"The MILF was disappointed with the draft because they accused the Philippines government of reneging on what has been agreed upon earlier," said Othman Abdul Razak, the chief Malaysian government facilitator.
"The meeting has to be called off because the MILF has refused to meet with the government panel," he said.
It is up to Manila to improve the draft and make it acceptable to the MILF, he said, conceding the target may be in jeopardy because of the year-end holidays.
MILF officials couldn't be reached for comment on Saturday.
The ancestral domain agenda had stalled formal peace negotiations since last year. It was the biggest hurdle in efforts to forge a permanent peace pact, which would replace a fragile 2003 ceasefire between authorities and the MILF in Mindanao, home to minority Muslims in the predominantly Roman Catholic country.
Both sides have held glacially paced talks in recent years regarding ancestral domain, which covers territorial claims and the control Muslims would have over natural resources in mineral-rich, but economically backward, Mindano.
The MILF is the largest group battling for self-rule. Officials have often accused the MILF of giving sanctuary to members of the Abu Sayyaf extremist group, and to Jemaah Islamiyah.
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