KUALA LUMPUR - Thai army and Muslim rebel peace negotiators agreed Tuesday to create a "safety zone" in Thailand's insurgency-hit south, a small but significant step in talks to end a bloody 13-year conflict.
More than 6,800 people have died in a rebellion waged by ethnic Malay militants in Buddhist-majority Thailand's three southernmost provinces, a region known as the "Deep South".
Talks held in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur have staggered on for years, undercut by near-daily bombs, ambushes and assassinations in the Deep South and a decade of political instability in Bangkok.
The army has been talking with Mara Patani, an umbrella group that says it is a political wing representing the shadowy network of fighters.
The Thai side doubts the Mara's ability to prod rebel footsoldiers into putting down their guns in an area where resentment against more than a century of Thai colonisation runs high.
For their part, the rebels are not convinced Thailand's junta will reduce its massive security presence across the south or devolve significant political power.
But in a confidence-building measure the two sides on Tuesday "approved and adopted a general framework for the implementation of a safety zone in one of five proposed districts," the Mara said in a statement.
It did not reveal the district chosen for the zone, which would provide respite for civilians from the bloody conflict.
Junta chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha welcomed the development but warned that continued rebel attacks to undermine the safety zone would damage the peace process.
"If the safety zone cannot happen, it will prove the potential of the people we are talking to," he told reporters in Bangkok.
The long-running insurgency is mostly contained to Thailand's southern tip.
But deadly bombs attacks struck tourist towns further north in August 2016.
The insurgents rarely claim responsibility for their attacks but the suspects wanted for the bombings are Muslims from the southern region.