The head of an international group that is monitoring a cease-fire agreement in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan says thousands of people in the region are returning to their homes now that peace seems nearer.

The chairman of the joint monitoring commission, Brigadier General Jan Erik Wilhelmsen, says people who fled fighting in the remote Nuba Mountains of central Sudan are counting on the success of ongoing peace talks to end the country's 21-year civil war.

General Wilhelmsen, who is from Norway, says people are also returning because of the stability his group has brought to the Nuba Mountains.

"There has been a normalization process," said General Wilhelmsen. "There is freedom of movement in general. People are resettling. New markets are opening, and if you compare the markets that [were in action when I came] about two and a half years ago, they have developed drastically [for] the better."

General Wilhelmsen estimates that some 200,000 residents who fled the area because of fighting have returned.

Control over the Nuba Mountains was a major sticking point in negotiations between the Sudanese government and the Sudan People's Liberation Army, or SPLA. Those talks have been taking place in Kenya over the past two years.

The Nuba Mountains region falls under the jurisdiction of the Sudanese government in the north. But the SPLA argued that, since people in the Nuba Mountains had been subjected to aerial bombardments, ground attacks, and ethnic discrimination by the government, the area should be included in the south.

On May 26, the two sides agreed that the Nuba Mountains would be an autonomous state within northern Sudan, with elections to be held three years after a final deal is signed. Negotiators say the signing could take place within two weeks.