Sudan and southern rebels to end 20-year civil war with Jan. 10 peace agreement

Dec. 25 (AP)

The Sudanese government and the country's main southern rebel group will sign a peace agreement Jan. 10 in Kenya to end more than 20 years of civil war, a senior government official said Saturday.

The government and the Sudan People's Liberation Army had pledged to finalize an agreement to end the longest-running war in Africa by Dec. 31, making a commitment last month before the U.N. Security Council which held a rare meeting in Nairobi to spur the peace talks.

The north-south war has pitted Sudan's Islamic-dominated government against rebels seeking greater autonomy and a greater share of the country's wealth for the Christian and animist south. The conflict is blamed for more than 2 million deaths, primarily from war-induced famine and disease.

Gutbi el-Mahdi, political adviser to President Omar el-Bashir, told the official Sudan Media Center that the government and SPLA negotiators decided to continue talks over the Christmas and New Year holidays to resolve outstanding differences before the agreement is signed.

"The final signing for peace will be on Jan. 10 in the presidential palace in Nairobi," el-Mahdi told the media center, adding that it would be a cause for public celebrations both in the north and the south of Sudan.

U.N. and U.S. officials are hoping that a solution to the civil war -- which will include a new constitution and power-sharing government for Sudan -- will spur an end to the separate conflict between government-backed forces and rebels in the western Darfur region.

An estimated 70,000 people have died in that conflict which has driven 1.8 million from their homes since non-Arab rebel groups took up arms in February 2003 against what they saw as years of state neglect and discrimination against Sudanese of African origin.

The government responded with a counterinsurgency campaign in which the Janjaweed, an Arab militia, has committed wide-scale abuses against the African population.

The United States has accused the Janjaweed of committing genocide and the United Nations considers Darfur the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

By contrast, an informal ceasefire in southern Sudan has largely held for the last two years while the government and southern rebels conducted peace talks in Kenya.

"All technical committees have ended their work except for the power-sharing committee, which is expected to finish its job at any moment," Sudan's independent newspaper Al-Sahafa quoted Al-Dardiri Mohammed Ahmed, a member of the government peace delegation, as saying Saturday.

When the latest negotiations began this month, both sides had already agreed on power and wealth sharing and how to integrate their armed forces. But there were a number of outstanding issues including the size of the armies of the north and the south and funding for the southern armed forces during the 6 1/2 year period
until a referendum on autonomy for that region is held.

The top U.N. envoy to Sudan, Jan Pronk, told reporters at the United Nations on Dec. 14 that if a north-south agreement is reached and signed in early January, he envisions Security Council adoption of a resolution in the third week of January authorizing a wide-ranging U.N. peacekeeping and peace-building mission,
hopefully with 9,000 to 10,000 troops.

The United Nations already has pledges for the troops, including from southeast Asian nations Pronk wouldn't identify. But he said it will take six months to deploy the U.N. force in southern Sudan where it will likely remain through the referendum.

The U.N. force will not be deployed in Darfur where the African Union has deployed about 900 troops of an expected 4,000-strong force.