DOHA // The Sudanese president, Omar al Bashir, and the leader of the main Darfur rebel group signed a ceasefire agreement in Doha yesterday, paving the way for talks intended to bring peace to Sudan's war-ravaged western region weeks before the nation's first national elections in decades. "We are taking a very important step towards ending conflict and war in Darfur," Mr al Bashir said before the signing.
The 12-point accord represents a ceasefire between the government and the largest rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement (Jem). It also marks the start of bilateral negotiations on a final deal, which is to be signed by March 15, and a list of provisions to be included in those negotiations. They include the integration of Jem troops into the armed forces and the release of Jem prisoners of war. Further, the pact immediately transforms Jem from rebel group to political party, stipulating "participation of the Jem at all levels of powers".
Since ethnic rebels in Darfur took up arms against the mostly Arab Sudanese government in 2003, some 300,000 have been killed and 3 million displaced, according to the UN. Violence has waned but never halted. Without the backing of regional players, key rebel groups or the international community, several previous peace deals failed to hold. But the presence of Mr al Bashir and the Chadian president, Idriss Deby, who also attended the signing, in a single room highlighted a considerable improvement in relations. The leaders of Chad and Sudan have in the past exchanged bitter accusations about supporting rebels operating on each other's territory.
The deal is the most far-reaching yet. Greater international scrutiny, the support of Chad and Sudan's first national elections in 24 years, scheduled for April, should further bolster the agreement. Still, the Sudanese government appreciates the need for a more broadly embraced settlement. "We believe that Darfur can't be solved bilaterally," Amin Hassan Omar, the government negotiator, said on Monday.
He called the Jem truce an "important breakthrough", adding, "we hope we can negotiate with the other groups to reach a final and comprehensive agreement." A dozen smaller rebel factions have fused into two main groups to narrow their demands. After meeting with the lead negotiator for the UN-African Union team in Doha, they hinted yesterday at the possibility of joining the talks. Another provision in the pact is the return of all displaced people and government compensation for all victims of the conflict. The world's first leader charged with war crimes by the Hague-based International Criminal Court while still in office, Mr al Bashir may be seeking to burnish his image at home and abroad.
The Qatari emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, who also attended the signing, said he planned to establish a $1 billion (Dh3.67bn) fund for reconstruction in Darfur. The agreement may herald a peacemaking coup for his government. The tiny but wealthy Gulf state has in recent years carved out a reputation for helping to settle international disputes. The US state department has praised the deal as an important first step towards a peaceful Darfur. Yet shortly after preliminary commitments were made on Saturday, Jem field commanders in Darfur reported skirmishes with government troops.