Mediators expect final Sudan peace deal on December 31

Dec 25 (AFP)

A final peace deal to end 21 years of conflict in southern Sudan could be clinched at the end of the month in line with a pledge by Khartoum and the main southern rebel group, officials said on Saturday.

"We expect an agreement on December 31, but a big signing ceremony will be held at Nairobi State House sometime in January," a mediation official told AFP from the talks venue in the northwestern Kenyan town of Naivasha.

Sudan's Vice President Ali Osman Taha and rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) leader John Garang have been negotiating in Kenya since September 2003 with a view to clinching a deal to end Africa's longest running war.

"The Kenyan government is hopeful that the Sudanese peace agreement will be reached soon, because a date in January has been mentioned for the signing of the deal," a Kenyan government spokesman told AFP.

Last month, Khartoum and the SPLM/A pledged in writing to the UN Security Council to sign a deal to end the war in southern Sudan by year-end.

A temporary ceasefire between the two sides, which was extended on November 30, will also expire on December 31.

SPLM/A spokesman Yasser Arman said from the talks venue that the timeline was realistic.

Also as part of post-conflict efforts, both sides have agreed to form a 60-member committee to draft an interim constitution after a comprehensive peace deal is reached, the Al-Rai al-Aam daily reported in Khartoum.

Quoting government sources close to the negotiations in Naivasha, the newspaper said the committee would also discuss other provisions for the six-year interim period leading to self-determination.

"Among issues still being discussed by the two sides ahead of a peace deal is the financing for the SPLM/A and other rebel groups in southern Sudan," SPLA political wing negotiator Deng Aloor said.

More than two years of intense negotiations have already delivered agreements on key issues such as power- and wealth-sharing, but technical details still need to be ironed out before a final deal is clinched.

The southern Sudan war erupted in 1983 as a freedom struggle by the mainly Christian and animist south against successive Islamic, ethnic Arab governments in Khartoum.

Since then, the conflict has killed at least 1.5 million people and displaced four million.

The talks in Kenya do not cover a separate conflict in Sudan's western Darfur region, where clashes erupted 22 months ago when rebels from minority tribes took up arms to end marginalisation by the Khartoum government.

The Darfur conflict has claimed around 70,000 lives and displaced some 1.6 million people, according to UN estimates.