Sudan FM says deal with southern rebels still few days off

April 10 (AFP)

A framework peace agreement between Sudan's government and the main rebel group, which was expected to be signed this weekend, is still a few days away, both sides said on Saturday.

Sudanese Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail said that the framework deal -- a package of accords on all issues discussed since talks began in 2002 -- with the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) was still a few days off but added that he did not expect the talks in Kenya to drag on for weeks.

Washington and the SPLA this week expressed hope that the agreement would be signed over the weekend to mark the end Africa's longest and most intricate conflict that resumed in 1983 and has claimed at least 1.5 million people and displaced four million others.

But Ismail said the two sides remained at odds over the government's calls for Khartoum to remain subject to Islamic law.

"The Naivasha negotiations are making progress and the only main obstacle that remains to be resolved is the status of the national capital," Ismail told AFP by telephone from Geneina in the western region of Darfur, where he is on a peace mission.

"I think the road will be open to the signing (of an agreement) in a matter of days rather than weeks and as soon as the national capital issue is resolved."

"An agreement is imminent, the only obstacle is that the government is insisting on applying Islamic laws on Christians and non-Muslims in the capital," SPLA spokesman Yassar Arman confirmed.

"We will reach an agreement in a few days," he added.

Sudan's Vice President Ali Osman Taha and the SPLA leader John Garang began a series of face-to-face negotiations in September last year. Low level talks started in 2002.

An official in the mediation told AFP that "both sides have something worth signing, but they are unwilling to sign this weekend because it would appear like they are working under pressure from US," said the official, who did not want to be identified.

Acting US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Charles Snyder, in a visit to Kenya on Wednesday, voiced frustration at the slow pace of the negotiations but said he had received assurances from both sides that a framework deal would be signed Saturday or Sunday and a comprehensive agreement "in a month or so".

Since July 2002, when they struck an accord granting the south the right to a referendum after a six-year transition period, other deals have been reached on a 50-50 split of the country's wealth -- particularly revenues from oil, and how to manage Khartoum and SPLA armies during the interim period.