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Sudanese Government, Rebels Agree to Cease-Fire - 2002-10-05

The Sudanese government and southern-based rebels have agreed to a cease-fire and to pursue a new round of peace talks aimed at ending their 19-year-long civil war. The news is raising hopes that a 10-day humanitarian flight ban imposed by the Sudanese government last week over southern Sudan will be lifted on Sunday as promised.

Regional mediators say the Sudanese government and the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army have agreed to sign a memorandum that will stop hostilities in all areas. The signing will then pave the way for the resumption of peace talks on October 14.

The Nairobi-based secretariat of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, the regional group that is mediating between the two sides, urged them to exercise restraint in the meantime and avoid any action that could jeopardize the talks.

The announcement follows a briefing in Nairobi Friday by the United Nation's secretary general for humanitarian affairs, Kenzo Oshima.

Mr. Oshima says he has just returned from an urgent mission to Khartoum in an effort to convince Sudanese government to lift the ban it has imposed on humanitarian flights over eastern and western Equatoria in southern Sudan. The United Nations says the 10-day flight ban, and the subsequent suspension of all aid activities in the area, means that up to 450,000 people are not receiving any food assistance. In addition, U.N. officials say that, because of the ban, almost 800,000 children in the Equatoria region who were scheduled to be vaccinated against polio may not get their injections in time.

Mr. Oshima says the officials in Khartoum appeared eager to cooperate. But he admits he is not certain they will allow humanitarian flights again over southern Sudan on Sunday, as scheduled. "The Sudanese officials did not explicitly tell us that they are going to lift the ban," he said. "They said they are going to revisit the issue of access and that the government will have a meeting on it. We are cautiously optimistic, but we will see. We will see."

On September 26, the Sudanese government ordered all flights and aid activities to the region stopped, saying fighting between government troops and southern-based rebels had intensified to the point where Khartoum could no longer guarantee the safety of personnel in the area.

Peace talks to end the civil war between the government and the rebels broke down earlier this month, after the rebels captured the key garrison town of Torit near the border with Uganda.

Until the announcement on Friday, the government had been saying it would not resume talks with rebels until they stopped their offensive. But the government has also been on the offensive, capturing strategic positions in the western Upper Nile region of southern Sudan.

The rebels have been fighting for greater autonomy for the Christian and animist south from the Arab and Muslim-dominated government in Khartoum.