Belgium's feuding politicians have hailed a first breakthrough in marathon negotiations, marking an important step towards resolving a crisis that has left the country without a government for a world-record 459 days.
Breaking the deadlock between Belgium's two warring language communities - Dutch and French - is urgently needed as it is a member of the debt-stricken eurozone and ratings agencies have warned of a downgrading if it remains without a government for much longer.
French-speaking Socialist leader Elio Di Rupo, the mediator in the talks and possible future prime minister, announced that the eight Flemish and Francophone parties took a "first decisive step" in a key electoral dispute, AFP reports.
"The eight parties have together succeeded in overcoming the obstacles which have created difficulties these last few days," the politicians said in a joint statement after hours of intense negotiations, the Wall Street Journal reports.
"They were able to find a consensus on various aspects relating to Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde."
Brussels-Halle-Vilvoord, a disputed electoral district marred by tensions between French and Dutch speakers, caused the downfall of the last government, and has been a contentious issue for decades. One person familiar with talks described finding agreement as "a miracle", WSJ reports.
The negotiators reached a compromise on the sensitive issue of Brussels and its suburbs, the only bilingual electoral district in the country and the source of deep divisions between Flemish and French-speaking politicians.
The talks had appeared near collapse just a few hours earlier, when Di Rupo warned that they were heading towards another breakdown.
The breakthrough on the Brussels electoral district was hailed by Dutch- and French-speaking newspapers alike as "historic".
While the statement did not provide details, Flemish parties have sought to end special voting rights of Francophones in suburbs located within Flanders.
But politicians still face tough negotiations, notably on devolving more power to the regions -- a key demand in Dutch-speaking Flanders, which is wealthier and more populated than its southern Francophone neighbor Wallonia.
The negotiators have also excluded the largest party in Flanders, the separatist New Flemish Alliance (N-VA).
"Even if the work is far from being finished and numerous debates have to be have to be worked out, the steps taken today ... constitute an important step," the eight parties said in the statement, AFP reports.
The country was left in the hands of a caretaker cabinet after June 10, 2010 elections failed to produce a workable governing coalition.
Divisions between northern Dutch-speaking separatists and southern French-speakers proved insurmountable.