The Sudanese government and the south's main rebel group are optimistic they will sign a final peace agreement by the end of the year as earlier promised. The rebel group says the situation in Darfur is not affecting the talks.

The spokesman for the Sudan People's Liberation Army, Samson Kwaje, told VOA he is confident his group and the Sudanese government will sign a final peace agreement by December 31, ending 21 years of war.

During the U.N. Security Council meeting in Nairobi last month, the parties promised they would sign a deal by the end of the year.

Mr. Kwaje said if the two sides do not finish their talks by the Christmas break, they will do so by New Year's Eve.

He says, "We are going on with discussions. We are supposed to end on (December) 23rd, and if we don't finish, then we will come back on the 27th (December)."

Mr. Kwaje said all that remains is to work out timetables and other details of implementing six protocols that have already signed. The protocols spell out arrangements on such things as how to share power, wealth, and the confinement of Islamic law to the north.

Mr. Kwaje said the two sides are finalizing a permanent cease-fire arrangement, the size of the joint army, and who will fund that army.

Sudan foreign ministry spokesman Mohamed Ahmed Abdel Gaffar also told VOA a deal is near.

"At most (an agreement will be signed) within the first week of January if not at the end of this month" he says.

The north-south war has claimed an estimated two-million lives and displaced many more since 1983.

The conflict pits a largely Muslim north against a Christian and animist south with oil-rich areas where local populations have been forcibly removed to get to the oil.

Some analysts have been concerned that another Sudanese conflict - the two-year-old war in the Darfur region of western Sudan - might affect the process and outcome of the north-south talks.

A Sudan analyst with the South African-based Institute of Security Studies, Richard Cornwell, says that the Sudanese government has been dragging its feet on resolving the north-south negotiations, commonly called the "Naivasha talks" named after the Kenyan town where most of the discussions were held.

He says, "The Darfurian crisis means that the government of Sudan probably has an equal interest in continuing to hold that process hostage. Once it signs Naivasha, it will be under increasing international pressure to actually do something constructive about Darfur."

But Mr. Kwaje told VOA he does not feel the influence of Darfur in the north-south talks. He says the two conflicts are unrelated.

The Sudanese government maintains it is committed to bringing peace both to the south and Darfur.