UNITED NATIONS — Sudan's government signed a preliminary peace deal Friday with rebels from the country's south, edging one step closer to a comprehensive accord to end Africa's longest running civil war.
However, the continuing violence in the western region of Darfur cast a shadow over celebrations.
"The war in the south is over," Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir told reporters after the signing ceremony at Lake Naivasha, Kenya, where the final rounds of talks began early last year. "Our happiness will not be complete unless we solve the problem of Darfur."
Delegates from the warring sides initialed the two final chapters of an eight-part pact that spell out a power-sharing agreement and a permanent cease-fire.
The deal, three years in the making, gives the southern rebels seats in the government and guarantees them revenue from the country's oil wealth to spur development. It also integrates the militaries and grants the southern region a chance to opt for self-determination after six years.
Rebel leader John Garang and Vice President Ali Osman Mohammed Taha are to sign the entire accord in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, on Jan. 9. The two leaders promised the U.N. Security Council and Secretary-General Kofi Annan in November during a special session in Nairobi that they would end the war by the end of 2004 as "a New Year's present" to the Sudanese people.
The 21-year war began when leaders in Khartoum, the capital, tried to impose Islamic law on the largely Christian and animist south. The conflict was complicated by disputes over oil and governance. An estimated 2 million people have died, mainly because of starvation and disease, and about 4 million have been displaced.
Those who helped negotiate the peace know that it will be even harder to implement it.
"This is very important for the future of Sudan and a major accomplishment," said U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John C. Danforth, who helped launch the peace talks in 2001 and orchestrated the special Nairobi session in November.
"But there's more work to be done."
The accord does not cover the conflict in Darfur, which has caused what the United Nations has called the world's worst humanitarian crisis. Khartoum retaliated against uprisings in the west in February 2003, by using proxy militias to root out rebels.
However, the offensive escalated and entire villages were wiped out in the process. Tens of thousands of people have been killed, women raped and about 2 million displaced from their land by the attacks that the U.S. government has called genocide.
Critics have accused the United States and U.N. of focusing on the north-south peace talks to the detriment of solving the Darfur crisis.
Eric Reeves, a Sudan activist and professor at Smith College, cataloged what he called Khartoum's pattern of broken promises and said the peace pact was "a cynically timed diplomatic ploy, designed to deflect international attention away from the regime's accelerating genocidal destruction in Darfur."
But diplomats believe that the accord will provide a template for peace in Darfur: The new southern members of government will heighten pressure for a solution from within, and the international community will turn its attention to the western region.
A peacekeeping force led by the African Union is already in Sudan and will be expanded and deployed throughout the country to monitor the cease-fire. Negotiators hope that its expanded presence will help stabilize Darfur, though the few troops already there have been largely ineffective.
"We have to be realistic that the problem of Darfur is still there and there is no positive to the conclusion to the peace process unless Darfur is solved," Danforth said. "It must be accomplished on an urgent basis."
U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has pledged international help in rebuilding Sudan if the government shows that it is serious about peace.
"We expect all the parties to work together decisively and immediately to end the violence in Darfur," Powell said at the United Nations. "There are two tracks, but they must lead to the same point: peace, stability and prosperity for the people of Sudan."
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