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Sudan Peace Talks Enter Final Round - 2003-10-16

Sudan's vice president and the country's main rebel leader have arrived in Kenya to begin what many people hope will be the final round of negotiations aimed at ending Sudan's 20-year civil war.

Sudanese Vice President Ali Osman Taha arrived in Nairobi Thursday, expressing optimism about talks with John Garang, the leader of the separatist rebel Sudanese People's Liberation Army.

"We are determined to fully resolve the outstanding issues in this round, and we hope that we come up with a comprehensive peace settlement," he said.

Some of those outstanding issues include how to share power between Sudan's Islamic, Arab north and the mostly-Christian south, and how to allocate the country's vast southern-based oil reserves.

The issues have been major stumbling blocks in the year-long effort to reach a permanent peace accord. But regional mediators say substantial progress has been made since the last round of talks adjourned on September 25.

They say committees doing preparatory work on the issues for both sides are working hard to find common ground.

Earlier this month, Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir also made an extraordinary conciliatory gesture, publicly praising Mr. Garang's cooperation during the September peace talks. The praise was unprecedented from the leader, who has long condemned Mr. Garang as an outlaw.

Observers say President Bashir could be signaling a willingness on the part of the government to resolve remaining differences, and to accept the rebel leader as a political partner.

In September, the first high-level talks between Mr. Garang and Vice President Taha in Kenya produced a breakthrough security arrangement. The warring parties agreed to have two separate armies, one in the north and one in the south, during a six-year interim period. The government had earlier insisted that the country should have only one army.

The Sudanese government agreed to the six-year interim period in a deal signed in July 2002. Under the so-called Machakos Protocol, the government accepted the right of southerners to hold a referendum on self-determination after six years. The rebels, in turn, accepted the maintenance of Islamic law in the north.

Both sides have long been under intense international pressure to end Africa's longest-running civil war. The conflict has claimed an estimated two million lives, mainly through war-related famine and disease.