The end nears for Sudan's 20-year nightmare

After 20 years of crushing civil war, Sudanese rebel and government leaders returned to a Kenyan lakeside lodge yesterday for a final push in groundbreaking peace talks.

Hopes have never been higher for ending one of Africa's oldest, cruellest and most enduring conflicts. Since 1983, fighting has cost an estimated two million lives, triggered famines and massacres, helped resurrect modern slavery and condemned generations to medieval poverty.

Now, after years of stop-start talks and gunboat diplomacy, the two enemies are finally in face-to-face negotiations. This morning, the bearded rebel leader John Garang will sit opposite his powerful government counterpart, First Vice-President Ali Osman Taha, at Lake Naivasha, 55 miles north of Nairobi.

Diplomats, analysts and the parties themselves say the omens for peace have never been better. "The process is irreversible," said David Mozersky, of the International Crisis Group think-tank. "The momentum should mean a deal in the next few months. There's no going back."

Last September, Mr Garang and Mr Taha hammered out a breakthrough agreement on security arrangements for a six-year transition in the rebel-held south. At the end of this, the southerners will have a vote, on whether to remain with the Muslim-dominated north, or secede into a separate state. If the two peacemakers can settle the remaining issues - dividing Sudan's vast oil wealth, sharing power, and deciding the fate of three contested regions - a fully-fledged deal is practically guaranteed.

"This is the first time since independence that we are discussing all the major issues," Dr Mansour Khalid, a Sudanese academic and Garang adviser, admitted.

Sudan's grinding war has only occasionally flickered into western attention. Although often characterised as a struggle between northern, Arab Muslims and southern, African animists and Christians, the reality is more complex.

In Khartoum President Omar El Bashir, an army general who came to power in a military coup, used the cloak of Islamic fundamentalism to tighten his grip on power. Human rights abuses alienated him on the international stage. Government soldiers ruthlessly bombed southern villages by slinging crude, petrol-drum bombs from old Russian planes. Fanatical horseback militiamen slashed through southern villages, slaughtering men and taking women and children into slavery.

And in oil-rich areas, government-backed warlords slashed and burned villages for lucrative exploration projects In just five years Sudan's oil production has soared from almost nothing to an estimated 250,000 barrels a day.

The rebels are no angels either. They recruited child soldiers, murdered opponents and stole western aid to feed their troops. Internal opponents accuse Mr Garang of talking like a democrat but acting like a dictator. War brought famine, particularly in 1998 in Bahr el Ghazal. Fighting delayed deliveries of aid and tens of thousands died. One photograph seared itself on international consciousness, that of a vulture lurking ominously near a dying infant. The haunting image is believed to have contributed to the subsequent suicide of the photographer, Kevin Carter.

But to the surprise of observers at the Naivasha talks, the atmosphere has been light-hearted. Rival negotiators are likely to bump into each other in the dining hall, swimming pool or gym. Both sides realised a military win was impossible. After the last talks, Mr Taha proclaimed the talks the basis of a "lasting peace", while in the south entire villages slaughtered cattle and sang freedom songs.

But just in case it all goes wrong this time, government and rebels are maintaining large standing armies. "Past agreements were dishonoured because one side was weak," a rebel spokesman, Samson Kwaje, said. "Today, if that happens, we go back to war."