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Sudanese President Holds Landmark Meeting With Rebel Leader - 2002-07-27

Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir has met for the first time with John Garang, the leader of the country's southern rebel movement. The meeting took place Saturday in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, one week after government officials and rebels agreed on a framework for talks to end Sudan's 19-year-old civil war.

The meeting in Kampala began with a handshake between Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and John Garang, leader of the rebel Sudanese People's Liberation Army, the SPLA.

Observers called it a historic moment, signaling another step toward ending a bitter 19-year conflict that has pitted the northern Islamist government against rebels in the south, where people practice mainly Christianity and traditional religions.

President al-Bashir and Mr. Garang's meeting followed five weeks of talks in Kenya in which both sides agreed to enter negotiations next month to end the war.

The framework agreement signed by government officials and rebels in Kenya on July 20 calls for Sudan's constitution to be rewritten so that the Islamic law, Sharia, will not be applied to non-Muslims in the south.

It also calls for a referendum to be held in six years' time to determine whether the south should remain a part of Sudan or gain its independence.

Officials did not discuss details of Saturday's meeting in Uganda, but a statement issued by the rebels the day before said the Sudanese president and the rebel leader would endorse the framework agreement.

All essential and technical matters, the statement said, would be discussed at the next round of talks, scheduled in Kenya for the middle of August.

Both sides say the talks next month will focus on issues that include the integration of rebel leaders into the government, organizing a cease-fire, human rights and the sharing of Sudan's oil wealth.

The new moves toward ending the war in Sudan come as the United States intensifies pressure on both sides to make peace.

The conflict in Sudan has, by some estimates, killed two-million people, mainly as a result of famine induced by the war. Millions of others have been displaced.