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Sudan Rebel Group Says Agreement Near on Final Issues of Peace Settlement - 2004-01-23

Sudan's main rebel group says it is close to agreeing with the government on one of the most divisive issues left in the peace negotiations, who will administer three disputed areas of Sudan.

The government went into the negotiations maintaining that the Nuba Mountains, Southern Blue Nile and the oil-rich Abyei belong to the north and should be administered by the central government.

But the Sudan People's Liberation Army argued that people living in those areas have experienced the same repression and marginalization as southern Sudanese, and should therefore be included in the south.

It appears now that the two sides are close to an agreement on two of the regions, the Nuba Mountains and Southern Blue Nile.

SPLA spokesman Yasser Arman says the two areas are to have some sort of self-rule. "We had made some essential progress on the issue of the Nuba Mountains and Southern Blue Nile in the fundamental issues of self-rule, full autonomy, and popular consultations for those two regions," he said.

As for Abyei, Mr. Arman says, the two sides are still trying to work out who will rule the oil-rich area.

He says the SPLA wants Abyei to be included within the territory of Bahr-el-Ghazal, which it controls. The government wants to administer Abyei through the office of the president.

Mr. Arman says he doesn't expect the discussion on Abyei to be very difficult, and says agreement may well be reached soon. "We are seriously engaged on resolving the problem of Abyei. We are cautiously optimistic that we're going to reach an agreement on the three areas if we remain focused with the same determinations," he said.

Once the territorial disputes have been resolved, the next key issue on the agenda is how to share political power in the country.

In a separate development, the U.N. announced Friday that the SPLA has begun demobilizing child soldiers in western Upper Nile. The U.N. said there are an estimated 800 child soldiers to be disarmed and sent home.