- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 24, 2010

CAIRO | Darfur’s most powerful rebel group and the Sudanese government on Tuesday signed a truce after a year of internationally sponsored negotiations, raising hopes the bloody seven-year conflict could draw to a close.

Rebel leader Khalil Ibrahim of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) announced the cease-fire would begin Tuesday night as the international sponsors of the talks announced a $1 billion development fund for the war-ravaged region.

The once-bitter enemies, Mr. Ibrahim and Sudanese President Omar Bashir, shook hands and embraced after the signing in Qatar’s capital, Doha. Also present were the host, Qatari emir Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, as well as Chadian President Idriss Deby Itno and Eritrean President Issaias Afeworki.

The next challenge for the mediators will be getting the dozens of other rebel splinter groups to join the process as the arduous power and wealth-sharing talks begin. Previous cease-fires and partial peace deals were short-lived.

“This framework agreement is a very important step,” Mr. Ibrahim said. “We point out, however, that the road to peace still needs much patience and honest concessions from both sides.”

Lt. Gen. Bashir said he hoped to see a full peace agreement by mid-March and praised the presence of other rebel groups at the ceremony, saying recent steps by them to unify their fractious positions was “good news.”

“With this agreement, we take a major step toward ending the war,” he said.

Tahir al-Faki, a JEM senior official, said the agreement commits the government to release all of its fighters currently on death row — nearly 100 — for their role in a massive attack on the capital in 2008.

According to the framework agreement, JEM would take part in the government’s executive, judicial and legislative branches.

“We agreed that JEM shall transform itself into a political party,” he said. “As time goes on, and if the agreement is implemented well, then JEM forces will be integrated into the Sudanese Armed Forces.”

Mr. al-Faki said the goal is to work out the details before March 15. JEM had asked the government to delay the April national elections so that its group can take part. The cease-fire would make it possible for the elections to take place in Darfur as well.

Other smaller rebel groups have joined forces to participate in the political negotiations for a more comprehensive peace agreement.

The major rebel group that first launched the rebellion, the Sudan Liberation Movement, however, has shunned the peace talks. The group’s exiled leader, Abdelwahid el-Nur, said the agreement in Doha is “ceremonial” and will follow the fate of previous partial peace deals. “No one addresses the need of the people of Darfur on the ground — [particularly] the issue of security,” he said in a telephone interview from Paris.

The temporary cease-fire between JEM, Darfur’s most able military rebel group, and the government was initialed last week in Chad, Sudan’s eastern neighbor. The U.S. helped shepherd the process and State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley on Monday said the cease-fire agreement is an important step toward reducing violence in Darfur.

The conflict in Darfur started in 2003 when ethnic African rebel groups took up arms against the Arab-dominated government complaining of discrimination, lack of political representation and neglect. The war left 2.7 million people displaced and as many as 300,000 people killed, according to U.N. estimates.

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