Sudan, Rebels to Sign Final Peace Deal

25 May (AP)

Moving to end a 21-year civil war, Sudan's government and rebels agreed on issues Tuesday that had prevented a final peace deal, officials said.

The parties still have to agree on the details of a comprehensive cease-fire before the war - which has led to the deaths of more than two million people - could be declared over.

Then it could take months to determine whether the diplomatic solution will translate to peace on the ground.

Negotiators plan to sign three protocols wrapping up the outstanding issues on Wednesday, officials in this Kenyan town said.

Rebel spokesman Samson Kwaje described the agreements as ``very, very significant.''

``It means that we will have finalized all the burning issues that have led us into the war,'' Kwaje told The Associated Press.

Late Tuesday, the two parties were still finalizing the details of the protocols - which cover power-sharing and the administration of three disputed areas in central Sudan - but they will sign the accords on Wednesday, he said.

It was not immediately possible to speak to Sudanese government officials. But in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, the official Sudan Media Center reported unidentified ``observers'' as saying that ``a final deal almost certainly should be signed tomorrow.''

The Media Center said the two negotiating teams had agreed to allow Islamic law, or Sharia, to prevail in Khartoum provided there are guarantees for citizens of Christian and animist faiths. The question of which religion should dominate the capital has long been contested.

The talks do not involve insurgents fighting a separate rebellion in the Darfur region of western Sudan.

The latest peace process to end the southern conflict began in Kenya in 2002 and the Sudanese government and the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army have already agreed on how to share the wealth in Africa's largest country and what to do with their armed forces during a six-year transition period.

But the talks stalled in recent months as the parties wrangled over how to share power in a transitional government, whether the capital, Khartoum, should be governed under Islamic law and how Southern Blue Nile, Nuba Mountains and Abyei - areas in central Sudan - should be administered during the transition period.

The protocols to be signed Wednesday cover all the outstanding issues, paving the way for negotiators to work on the cease-fire arrangements.

``The signing of the protocols represents a major step toward the achievement of a final comprehensive political settlement to the conflict,'' the Kenyan government said in a statement.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said he was pleased with the the progress being made at the talks, saying the two sides were ``very close to an agreement.''

``We are hopeful and optimistic that there might be some signings tomorrow,'' Powell told reporters in Washington.

More than 2 million people have perished - mainly through war-induced famine - in Africa's longest-running war since the rebels from the mainly animist and Christian south took up arms against the predominantly Arab and Muslim north in 1983.

The insurgents say they are fighting for better treatment of the south and for southerners to have the right to choose whether to remain part of Sudan. Southerners will vote in a referendum at the end of the transition on whether to secede.

Although often simplified as a religious war, the conflict is fueled by historical disputes and competition for resources, including major oil reserves.

The separate rebellion in Darfur region - which broke out in February 2003 - has wreaked havoc across western Sudan, making more than 1 million people homeless and creating what U.N. officials have described as the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

U.S. officials have joined others in condemning the government for supporting Arab militia who are accused of conducting an ethnic cleansing campaign in Darfur.

Last October, Powell said the United States would consider normalizing relations with Sudan if a deal to end the conflict in the south is concluded. President Bush has also invited both sides to the White House when they reach a comprehensive settlement.