Khartoum, Sudan rebels agree on key peace process issues

Sept 24 (AFP)

The main rebel group in Sudan and the Khartoum government moved closer to ending 20 years of devastating civil war on Wednesday, when they announced a breakthrough in marathon peace talks.

The two sides clinched a deal about the position and strength of their respective armed forces, but still have many issues to iron out before they can sign a comprehensive peace accord.

"We have come to an agreement regarding the deployment of forces and the size of the forces," government spokesman Sayed Al-Khatibu told AFP in the Kenyan town of Naivasha, where the current round of talks is being held.

"We expect that the agreement on this framework will make the remaining issues of the talks easier," he added.

Wednesday's development, which was expected to be formalised in a text later in the day or on Thursday, came amid face-to-face negotiations between Sudan's vice president, Ali Osman Taha, and the leader of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), John Garang.

They are the highest level talks between the warring sides since the war began in 1983.

"There has been a breakthrough on one of the outstanding issues -- that is security and military arrangements," SPLA spokesman Samson Kwaje told AFP.

"We have agreed on substantial withdrawal of the government forces from the south, redeployment of SPLA forces in Khartoum and the formation of equal units of an integrated force in Southern Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains," he added.

"The agreement has been satisfying to the SPLA. The talks will now get momentum. We hope to tackle the remaining issues," Kwaje said.

"I think it is a very positive and encouraging development," reacted David Mozersky, a Sudan specialist working with the International Crisis Group.

"They have overcome a major hurdle in the quest for a peace agreement," he added, warning however that "outstanding issues will not be easy to overcome."

Questions of power- and wealth-sharing and of the status of three regions in the centre of the country are still on the negotiating table.

On Sunday, both delegations in Kenya agreed to extend their ceasefire by two months beyond its scheduled expiration at the end of September so as to continue talks.

Garang then told AFP he expected a comprehensive peace agreement to be signed within two months.

The Islamic government in Khartoum and the rebels, based in the mainly animist and Christian south, have been fighting a war since 1983 that has become increasingly driven by a stake in Sudan's natural resources, namely oil.

Under an agreement signed in Kenya in July last year, the south will enjoy autonomy from Khartoum for six years, following which a referendum will be held to determine whether the south will secede or remain part of Sudan.

The six-year interim period will come into effect once a comprehensive peace agreement is signed.