Civilians return to Sudan's Nuba as peace nears

July 22 (Reuters)

Thousands of people are returning to Sudan's Nuba mountains, attracted by the prospect of a final peace deal between government and rebels, an international ceasefire monitor in the region said on Wednesday.

The head of the commission overseeing a truce between the Khartoum government and the rebel Sudan's People Liberation Army (SPLA) since January 2002 said thousands had returned to their homes since the two warring parties signed the ceasefire.

The peace accords do not cover a separate conflict in the western Darfur region.

"The local people have reacted very positively to the peace deal and many people are returning to their homes," Brigadier General Jan Erik Wilhelmsen, chairman of the Joint Monitoring Commission (JMC), told reporters in Nairobi.

Government and SPLA signed key peace protocols on May 26 which settled the status of the remote Nuba Mountains and two other areas that had been claimed by both parties - Abyei and Southern Blue Nile.

JMC figures put the number of people who had returned to their homes at 150,000 in the two and a half years the ceasefire has been in effect.

Wilhelmsen said that, although the people were able to move more freely since the ceasefire, there were still some government restrictions in force.

Returnees have said they have found the Nuba mountains area more developed because of the ceasefire, with shops and markets opening up, but restrictions were hampering political activity.

Under the May 26 agreement, Nuba Mountains will be an autonomous state within northern Sudan, with elections to be held three years after a final peace deal is signed.

The Sudan war began in 1983 and broadly pits the SPLA in the mainly Christian and animist south against the Northern Islamic government.

The conflict, which has killed two million people, has been complicated by issues of oil, ethnicity and religion.