Sudan's government and the main rebel group fighting over Darfur's meagre resources have signed a power-sharing peace deal. It is hoped the milestone agreement will help end a conflict that has left more than 180,000 people dead and two million homeless.
But the celebrations were muted last night because two small rebel groups rejected the deal. Further major obstacles must also be overcome before the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today can be solved. The talks had been held in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, and were mediated by the African Union.
The breakthrough in the negotiations to end the three-year conflict came after Britain and America, who have been most active in attempting to end the ethnic cleansing of the black African population by militias alleged to be supported by the Islamic government, dispatched senior envoys to the peace talks.
The US Deputy Secretary of State, Robert Zoellick, said: "This can be a very important day of hope and opportunity for the poor people of Darfur who have been suffering, but it is only a step." Britain's International Development Secretary, Hilary Benn, was also in Abuja.
The accord provides for a ceasefire and for the disarmament of the notorious Janjaweed Arab militia, allied to the Khartoum government, who burned down villages and expelled the local population as the central authorities moved to crush a rebellion over land and grazing rights.
Although the rebels failed to win a place in central government, the agreement guarantees rebel factions the majority in Darfur's three state legislatures. It also contains provisions for the integration of rebel forces into the national army; a protection force for civilians; establishment of a reconstruction and development fund; and provisions to compensate war victims.
The conflict sent 200,000 refugees across the border into Chad, threatening to destabilise further an already fragile government. Chadian rebels who tried to topple President Idriss Déby last month were accused of preparing their revolt in Darfur.
Yesterday's peace deal was agreed by the main rebel Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), led by Minni Minnawi, although a rival SLA faction and the smaller Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) refused to sign up, mainly over political demands.
The African Union's chief mediator, Salim Ahmed Salim, hailed the pact as "a big day for the people of Darfur", but added that he would have been happier if all rebel factions had signed. "In realistic terms, the agreement between the government and the SLA Minni is a major development. The two of them working together can make a major contribution to a return to peace and normalcy in Darfur," he said.
Mr Zoellick said in Abuja that the pact "has to be followed through on the ground by the government and the [rebel] movement, with support from the African Union mission and, we hope, from a UN force."
The Sudanese government has been resolutely opposed to a UN force, which could take over from the under-resourced African Union soldiers who were supposed to be monitoring a ceasefire. However, Sudanese leaders had recently modified their position by saying that a UN force could come in once a political agreement had taken place.
Western diplomats said that yesterday's deal could put further pressure on Khartoum to accept a UN peacekeeping force.
The UN Security Council was being briefed last night by the African Union on the peace agreement. But the humanitarian crisis in Darfur still needs to be addressed.
The UN is facing a shortfall in its appeal for funds for the displaced population, and the security situation remains dire. The continuing violence, and obstruction by the Sudanese government, means that access for relief agencies is at its worst level for two years.
The UN's chief humanitarian co-ordinator, Jan Egeland, said yesterday: "I first spoke to the UN Security Council on Darfur two years ago, calling it ethnic cleansing of the worst kind. Today, I could simply hit the rewind button on much of that earlier briefing."Reuse content