Sudan's foes agree on two disputed regions

Jan 23 (Reuters)

Sudan's government and its rebel foes have agreed in principle how to settle a dispute over two of three contested regions, the chief mediator said on Friday, accelerating efforts to end a 20-year-old war.

The status of the three regions, which are claimed by both sides, is one of two unresolved issues before a final peace deal can be signed between Khartoum and the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA).

"They have agreed on the conflict areas, but I have not seen anything in writing," Kenyan chief mediator to the peace talks Lazaro Sumbeiywo told Reuters. "They are still working on the document."

Sumbeiywo and a rebel source at the talks said the two sides had agreed to allow self-rule and autonomy in the Southern Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains during a six-year interim period after a final peace deal is signed.

Officials were discussing the third area, Abyei, and it was not immediately clear when a signing ceremony would take place.

The two sides inked a deal earlier this month on how they will share wealth after the end of the war in which two million people have been killed, but they are yet to agree on power-sharing and the disputed areas.

"We have agreed on self-rule during the six years, autonomy and popular consultation for the two areas," said a rebel source at the peace talks taking place in Naivasha, northwest of the Kenyan capital Nairobi.

The source said a separate committee working on the status of Abyei was yet to present its report to the two principals in the negotiations, Sudan's First Vice President Ali Osman Mohamed Taha, and SPLA leader John Garang.

In July 2002, the sides reached an accord granting the south a referendum on secession after the six-year period during which Islamic sharia law would apply in the north but not the south.

The war in Africa's largest country pits the Islamist government against southern Christian and animist rebels in a conflict complicated by oil, ideology, ethnicity and religion.

Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir said last week Khartoum would not negotiate on the territorial dispute involving the three regions with the rebels, saying the talks had no authority to settle the status of the three areas.

Last week, U.S. President George W. Bush's special envoy to Sudan said a final deal was in sight.