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Darfur rebel group agrees to make peace with Sudanese government

NAIROBI, Kenya—Darfur's leading rebel group bowed to pressure from high-powered Western and African diplomats on Friday and accepted a peace agreement with the government of Sudan to end a bloody three-year war.

But analysts immediately raised doubts about whether the agreement would stop the fighting or end attacks on civilians by government-backed militias. The attacks have led to the deaths of more than 200,000 people in a campaign the United States has called genocide.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, who brokered three days of talks that ended with an all-night session, said the agreement should pave the way for a United Nations peacekeeping force to arrive as early as this fall to stabilize the devastated region. But even he tempered his celebration with caution.

"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," he told reporters at the negotiations in Abuja, Nigeria.

The U.N. Security Council has approved sending a peacekeeping mission to Sudan as early as Sept. 30, but the Sudanese government so far has opposed the idea. Sudanese representatives to the negotiations said, however, that they would allow the U.N. mission once a peace agreement was in place.

Two smaller rebel factions declined to sign the agreement, but analysts said those groups weren't strong enough to continue the conflict on their own. They predicted that those factions' leaders would eventually join the agreement or go into exile.

The conflict in Darfur, which U.N. officials have labeled the world's worst humanitarian crisis, began in 2003 when Darfur's black villagers took up arms against the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum, seeking greater political rights.

Khartoum armed Arab militias known as the janjaweed to crush the rebels, launching a campaign of looting, arson and murder that forced more than 2 million people from their homes.

The agreement calls for the Sudanese government to present a plan within 30 days to disarm the janjaweed. The accord also calls for 4,000 rebel troops to be accepted into the national military and for 1,000 to join police forces.

The agreement initially was drafted by mediators from the African Union, who won the approval of the Sudanese government last weekend. But rebel agreement came only after intense negotiations that eventually involved not only Zoellick, but also Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo and envoys from the European Union, the Arab League and Great Britain.

The agreement was signed during a ceremony at a presidential residence in the Nigerian capital. A host of turbaned officials, fighters and diplomats attended, witnesses said.

Rebels said their demands for greater political representation and a bigger share of the national wealth weren't met. The agreement allocates Darfur a few more seats in the national legislature, but not the vice presidential post that some rebels wanted.

Rebels also said that an annual government rehabilitation grant of $200 million for the region wasn't enough to compensate war victims.

Deep divisions among the rebel groups in recent months spilled over onto the battlefield in Darfur, adding to the violence and posing a huge challenge for mediators. In the end, analysts said, negotiators focused on getting the leading rebel faction, the Sudan Liberation Army, led by Minni Minnawi, to sign on, hoping the others would follow.

"He was the only one in Abuja capable of continuing to fight a war, and he was the one whose signature everyone wanted to get," said Colin Thomas-Jensen, a Horn of Africa expert at the International Crisis Group research agency.

Experts said that, given Sudan's track record, sustained international pressure on Khartoum and the rebels would be needed to ensure the success of the peace agreement.

They noted that the government signed a peace deal last year with rebels in southern Sudan, ending a two-decade civil war there. But Khartoum has repeatedly stalled implementation of the so-called Comprehensive Peace Agreement—which ignored the conflicts in Darfur and in Sudan's simmering east—while the southern rebels have been plagued by internal squabbling.

"There's a very similar dynamic at play here," Thomas-Jensen said. "The rebel movements are terribly divided, and you have a government that has the ability to implement the deal, but we're not sure they will."

In recent months, according to rights groups, Sudan has backed janjaweed attacks in neighboring Chad, where tens of thousands of Darfur refugees have sought shelter. Many analysts also believe Khartoum was behind a failed coup attempt in Chad last month.

Humanitarian officials say Khartoum is blocking access to some of the hardest-hit parts of Darfur, where about 1.8 million people live in camps. Last month, the government prevented U.N. emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland from visiting Darfur, although Egeland plans to return next week.

On Friday, Ted Dagne, a veteran Africa analyst at the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, said the rebels signed the deal knowing it was fundamentally flawed.

"If I were in their shoes and I knew it was a bad agreement, but I still wanted my people in the displaced persons' and refugee camps to go back home, then signing would be my choice," Dagne said. "And that's what (Minnawi) at the end decided."


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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