The Philippines will formally ask Malaysia to hand over detained Muslim leader Nur Misuari after Kuala Lumpur warned it could not hold him much longer, Vice-President Teofisto Guingona said yesterday.

He refused to specify dates or details of Misuari's return, citing "security considerations". President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, in an emergency meeting with top ranking military and police officials, decided to send a C-130 military plane to get the renegade and ousted chairman of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) Nur Misuari from Malaysia before December 24, senior officials said.

"We will get Misuari earlier than the December 24 deadline set by Malaysian Prime Minister Mohammad Mahathir," said Justice Secretary Hernando Perez. He refused to give details such as the exact date of Misuari's arrival in Manila.

Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Eduardo Ermita said, "It is highly probable that Misuari will be back on the 24th of December."

"The protocols for the transfer have started because we have very limited time," said National Security Council head Roilo Golez, adding that the Philippines was ready to receive Misuari.

Misuari will be detained at Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija, central Luzon, Perez said. The detention camp is being prepared with Arroyo appointing her senior military aide, Brigadier General Alberto Braganza as the camp's head.

"He will be detained outside of Mindanao, where he is far from his sympathisers," explained Perez.

Misuari's detention in central Luzon, however, would be problematic because the rebellion charges against him would have to be filed in courts in Jolo, Sulu and Zamboanga City in the southern Philippines.

The justice department has 12 days to fast-track the filing of the charges against Misuari, said a justice official who requested for anonymity.

Misuari is facing charges of rebellion in the Philippines, a non-bailable offence. Intelligence reports said there was enough evidence showing that Misuari was the mastermind of the attacks on the Army headquarters which resulted in the death of more than 100 people in Jolo, Sulu on November 19; the assault on the Air Force headquarters and the hostage taking of 118 villagers in Zamboanga City on November 27.

The Philippine National Police have finalised a contingency plan to serve an arrest warrant for Misuari on his arrival, sources said.

The foreign affairs department said it was waiting for Malaysia to formally inform the Philippine government of the former's conclusion on its investigation against Misuari.

Earlier, in a meeting on protocol, the foreign ministers of both countries tried to settle whether a Malaysian team would take Misuari over to Manila or a Philippine team would fetch him from Sabah.

Both sides will fix the date for Misuari to be handed over, whether before the end of the year, or shortly after the start of the New Year, said a source, adding that was the reason why both camps could not say when Misuari would be brought back to Manila. Asked for details of Misuari's arrival and the government's preparation for it, Arroyo said: "Those matters would be resolved by the government officials concerned."

Arroyo's emergency security meeting was attended by foreign affairs officials, government peace negotiators, members of the Philippine National Police and the Armed Forces.

The Malaysian authorities have cleared Misuari of his alleged links with the Abu Sayyaf Group, leaving the case of illegal entry, which was filed against him and his six companions in Sabah on November 24.

Meanwhile, Misuari requested a "private conference" with Mahathir because he wanted to stay longer in Malaysia, a television report quoted Misuari's lawyer Elly Velez Pamatong as saying. Misuari wants to face trial in a Malaysian court instead of being tried in a court in Mindanao or Manila, his lawyer said.

Arroyo and other cabinet members have called for special treatment for Misuari.

"We are dealing with a former public official who deserves respect and that was the guideline of the president, and the guideline of the government. We have to treat him with respect, but with firmness too," said National Security Council head Roilo Golez.

The C-130 plane that will take Misuari from Malaysia will include a composite team of police and military, a foreign affairs official, and a Tausug who is close to Misuari, said Teofisto Guingona.

In an emergency meeting, they decided to use former Labour Secretary Ruben Torres, Misuari's close friend, to fetch him from Malaysia. Later, this plan was abandoned because it might give the perception that former President Fidel Ramos, Torres former boss, was behind the special arrangement for the Muslim leader.

Government officials said they were alarmed by the move of the United Nation High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) who had approached the Malaysian government on Misuari's application for refugee status.

Once the UN agency takes over Misuari's case, it will be more difficult for the Philippine government to handle, a source said, adding the Philippine government would try to take custody of Misuari before the UNHCR. The Malaysian authorities denied having given the UNHCR access to Misuari, according to Philippine ambassador to Malaysia Gregorio Brillantes.