A panel of former U.S. and foreign diplomats specializing in African affairs expresses hope that a peace deal being negotiated between the Sudanese government and a key rebel group will translate to peace throughout Sudan. The conclusion comes during a meeting in Washington Friday at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

The former ambassadors and experts on Africa say they are optimistic about an agreement signed Friday between the Sudanese government and the south's main rebel group, Sudan People's Liberation Movement. Khartoum and the rebels are vowing to reach a final peace agreement by the end of this year.

George Ward, former U.S. ambassador to Namibia, said the settlement could end the 21-year civil war between Sudan's mostly Muslim north and Christian and animist south. But he said it could also translate to a resolution in western Sudan's Darfur region, where government-backed Arab militias have been attacking black Sudanese, creating a humanitarian crisis. "This elusive final settlement being negotiated in Kenya under the auspices of the Inter-governmental Authority on Development, or IGAD, includes power sharing, wealth sharing and other agreements that many feel will help to resolve the crisis in Darfur, as well as to prevent further violence in other parts of Sudan," he said.

Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Chester Crocker said the negotiations between Khartoum and the rebel group provide an example of how to involve marginalized people in the peace process, as would be necessary in Darfur. He also said the new power-sharing government called for in the agreement between Khartoum and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement would include rebel leader John Garang.

Mr. Crocker said he could be instrumental in ending the humanitarian crisis. "I cannot imagine John Garang joining a process where he's going to let Darfur continue to be managed the way it's now being managed by Khartoum. He's just not going to do it. If he sits at that table, he's going to make a difference," he said.

The most promising moment of the conference came when Steven Wondu, a rebel spokesman, stepped up to the microphone and explained that the Sudan People's Liberation Movement is committed to peace and is working on the details of a peace agreement. "We are committed to this. We signed an addendum this morning and at this point we are considering, we are now discussing among ourselves as to whether we should not take those agreements to our national liberation council for ratification, even as discussion continues on the annexes. So we are very focused on this and we are very serious about it," he said.

The civil war in Sudan, raging since 1983, has claimed an estimated two-million lives. World attention has recently turned to a separate conflict in the country's Darfur region, where tens-of-thousands of people have been killed and more than 1.5 million people have fled their homes since 2002.