Sudan ready to sign agreement with rebels

The Sudanese government confirmed today that it will sign a draft agreement with rebels from its Darfur region as talks continued despite a question marking hanging over the deal.

The Sudanese government confirmed today that it will sign a draft agreement with rebels from its Darfur region as talks continued despite a question marking hanging over the deal.

The African Union set today as the deadline for the end of two years of talks aimed at ending fighting in Darfur. The violence has left about 180,000 dead and forced two million from their homes.

“The government wishes to confirm its position to formally accept this document and its readiness to sign,” said Magzoub El-Khalif, the head of Sudan’s delegation. AU mediators distributed the draft last week.

A spokesman for the rebels said they are still not satisfied with the draft.

“We have some reservations about the draft peace agreement,” said Ahmed Hussein, a spokesman for the Justice and Equality Movement – one of two rebel factions. He said the group wants to know how certain provisions will be implemented, and said some actions have not been guaranteed.

“If our reservations are not accepted, we are not going to sign the document,” he said.

Another rebel faction, the Sudan Liberation Movement, has asked for an extension to the Sunday deadline.

AU spokesman Norredine Mezni said the talks’ mandate requires negotiations to end by tonight, but said a partial agreement could open up options.

“Mediation is not going to change the document or reopen the negotiation at this late hour,” Mezni said. “However if the parties agreed among themselves on any part of the document, we shall accommodate them.” Mezni did not elaborate.

An agreement between Sudan and the rebels would likely be seen as a triumph of African diplomacy. The talks have been organised by the 53-nation AU with key participation from leaders from South Africa and Nigeria.

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo met with the heads of each delegation and rebels on Saturday and said he leaned on the groups to sign the deal.

The initial draft released on Wednesday addressed complaints from Darfur rebel groups that they had been neglected by the national government. It called for the president to include a Darfur expert, initially nominated by the rebels, among his top advisers.

The draft, noting that Darfur was “historically deprived” and suffered severely from the war, also called for the establishment of a rehabilitation fund to which international donors would be asked to contribute, suspension of school fees at all levels for students from Darfur for five years, and the adoption of a national anti-poverty plan.

In the draft, mediators also proposed that the people of Darfur vote by 2010 on whether to create a single geographical entity out of the three current Darfur states, which would presumably have more political weight.

Decades of low-level tribal clashes over land and water in Darfur erupted into large-scale violence in early 2003 when some ethnic groups took up arms, accusing the east African nation’s Arab-dominated central government of neglect.

The central government is accused of responding by unleashing Arab tribal militias known as Janjaweed to murder and rape civilians and lay waste to villages. Sudan denies backing the Janjaweed.

The draft agreement calls for the disarmament of the Janjaweed. It also calls for some rebels to be integrated into the national army and security forces and others to be disarmed.

The UN says the Darfur fighting has caused one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters and chaos has now spread into neighbouring Chad, where hundreds of thousands of Darfur refugees are sheltering.

Sudan has indicated it might accept a UN force in Darfur to aid AU troops if a peace treaty is signed.

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