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Sudan Signs Preliminary Peace Deal with Rebels

The Sudanese government and Darfur rebels have settled on a preliminary agreement aimed at ending the civil war in the country's troubled western province. But important decisions on a comprehensive peace agreement have been left for later talks, and experts and human rights activists remain wary.

Darfur's two main rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement, along with government officials representing Khartoum signed the declaration of principles Tuesday.

Agreement on the document, meant to serve as a basis for future talks, followed more than three weeks of African Union-mediated negotiations in the Nigerian capital Abuja. The declaration calls for the return of refugees, new security arrangements, and includes agreements on wealth distribution and minority rights.

Though touted by all sides as a breakthrough in a lengthy peace process that has produced few concrete results, important decisions on how to actually end fighting in Darfur have been put off until talks are scheduled to resume August 24.

A Nairobi-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, Jim Terrie says, though he is hopeful the deal will lead to peace in Darfur, he prefers to wait and see.

"It is only a very tentative step at this stage. And there are many key issues that are going to need to be resolved in future talks. And acknowledging that the talks on Darfur have been ongoing for a considerable amount of time, the problem is, while the talking is going on, not much is happening on the ground," he said.

The rebels have been fighting the Sudanese army and pro-government Arab militias since February 2003. A cease-fire signed in April 2004 is routinely broken by all sides.

Around 3,000 African Union peacekeepers are in Darfur. But faced with covering a region the size of France and possessing only a limited mandate, they have had little ability to stop attacks on civilians, the main victims of the civil war.

Speaking on behalf of the Associate Parliamentary Group on Sudan, a non-partisan grouping of 85 British parliament members, coordinator Sultana Begum says it is time for wealthier countries to do more.

"The African Union is a very young organization, lacks the capacity and the knowledge. I think the solution would be, really, full backing for the African Union. I think there has not been enough support for the African Union in terms of finances, logistics, a capacity building support," she said.

The African Union is planning to boost the number of its peacekeepers to 12,000 by September. And NATO has offered logistical support.

But Deputy Secretary of State, Robert Zoellick, said Tuesday the Darfur situation remained fragile. He said, even an expanded AU peacekeeping force would struggle if attacked by the Sudanese army or pro-government militias.

Ms. Begum says the only real solution is a peace deal respected by all sides.

"At the moment, I think the Abuja process is the only hope. The people of Darfur. The two million displaced. The 300,000 plus who are dead. They have no other hope," she said.

Human rights groups accuse the Sudanese government of backing Arab militias, known as Janjaweed, in their campaign of systematic torture, rape, and murder against Darfur's majority black African population.