Sudanese government, rebels sign ceasefire for Nuba region

Jan 19, 2002 (AFP)

The Sudanese government and the country's main rebel group signed a six-month ceasefire agreement Saturday aimed at ending fighting in the Nuba Mountains and allowing humanitarian aid into the region, scarred by 18 years of civil war.

The truce between Khartoum and the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) was hammered out in talks in Switzerland and is renewable on a six-monthly basis, according to a joint statement by the Swiss and US governments.

Under the agreement, a truce-monitoring commission will be set up, to be staffed by both government and rebel representatives, and with a neutral chairman.

The accord, which is due to come into force within 72 hours, also provides for an International Monitoring Unit of 10-15 foreign observers from countries agreed by both sides.

The statement said it was hoped the agreement would contribute towards ending the country's 18-year conflict and allow relief supplies to reach the population of the Nuba region in central Sudan, a key rebel stronghold.

"An end to the fighting, the delivery of humanitarian relief to civil populations and the gradual building of confidence between the parties are the objectives of the ceasefire agreement," said the statement.

"Ultimately, it is up to the parties to make this ceasefire work."

The Sudanese government immediately welcomed the accord, describing the ceasefire agreement as a step towards creating a climate conducive to reaching a lasting peace in the country.

"It is a step towards normalising life and facilitating relief and rehabilitation operations in the Nuba Mountains and creating an atmosphere conducive to reaching peace," Ghazi Salah Eddin Atabani, a presidential peace adviser said, as reported by Omdurman state radio.

Cairo-based SPLA spokesman Yasser Arman meanwhile welcomed the agreement as a first, tentative step towards ending the civil war.

"It is an excellent step, but it is limited. We are still waiting to find a comprehensive settlement and to address the causes of the problem which have not yet been addressed," he said.

Arman said that international observers would be stationed in the country for the first time in the history of the conflict and urged the Khartoum government to cooperate with the truce committee.

Joseph Bucher, the head of the Swiss delegation, said it had taken a great deal of effort to reach agreement, and that the next step was effective implementation.

The agreement also demands the free movement of people and humanitarian aid in the Nuba Mountains, immediate Red Cross access to prisoners on both sides and a ban on laying new landmines.

Both sides are also committed to the removal of landmines in the ceasefire area and efforts to open up transport routes.

The Nuba mountains region is only one part of a huge area of southern Sudan affected by a civil war which has pitted successive Arab and Muslim governments in Khartoum against the SPLA -- mainly composed of animists and Christians from the south -- since 1983.

The region is crossed by a pipeline regarded as essential for Sudanese oil exports.

The government has also been fighting northern groups who took up arms in 1995 in a conflict which has left between one million and 1.5 million people dead and four million people displaced. Relief agencies have expressed concern about access to the Nuba mountains.

About 158,000 people have been forced from their homes by recent fighting there, according to the UN World Food Programme.

The ceasefire deal comes at the end of days of negotiations between 11 representatives of the Khartoum government and seven members of the SPLA at a luxury hotel in the small town of Buergenstock in central Switzerland.

The Sudanese government and SPLA accepted the principle of a ceasefire in the strategic region in November last year but the SPLA accused Khartoum last month of violating that accord.