AU claims Khartoum, main rebels to sign peace deal on January 10

Dec 27 (AFP)

African Union (AU) on Monday claimed that Khartoum and the main southern rebel movement will sign a comprehensive peace agreement on January 10, but mediators and rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) could not confirm.

AU Commission chairman Alpha Omar Konare, "welcomes the positive news from Naivasha, Kenya, that the Government of the SPLM/A, will, on 10 January 2005, sign a comprehensive peace agreement to end the two decades of conflict in Southern Sudan," the AU said in a statement.

But mediators -- who are tasked with organising the signing -- could not confirm the date, saying it was given to the Sudanese Media Centre on Friday in Khartoum by a senior government official.

"The January 10 date was given by Gutbi el-Mahdi, political adviser to President Omar el-Bashir in Khartoum, not by the mediation," said an official in the mediation, who did not want to be named.

"The date did not come from Naivasha. For us in the mediation, we are looking forward for an agreement by December 31," the official told AFP from the talk's venue the Kenyan northwestern town of Naivasha.

The SPLM/A also distanced itself from the date, saying the movement is committed to reaching a peace deal by year-end as both sides pledged in writing to the UN Security Council last month.

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

The government delegation is headed by Vice President Ali Osman Taha and SPLM/A by John Garang.

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.