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During UN meeting, Sudan and rebels vow to end war

NAIROBI -- The Sudanese government and southern rebel leaders pledged again yesterday to end the 21-year civil war -- this time making the commitment before the UN Security Council during its special meeting in Africa.

UN officials hope the promise to reach an accord by year's end also will help quell a separate ethnic conflict in Sudan's western Darfur region, but warned against too much optimism.

''We are very close to peace, but we have been close before," said John Danforth, who was Washington's special envoy to Sudan before becoming US ambassador to the United Nations. ''Do not let this opportunity slip away," he told the Sudanese negotiators.

In 48 years of independence, Africa's largest country has spent 39 years at war with itself. And both the south and west have long histories of internal conflict even before independence.

International attention has focused on three major rebel groups -- one in the south and two in Darfur -- but there are more than a dozen militia leaders who constantly shift alliances.

Cementing full peace will require negotiations with all the militias, which have been responsible for most violations of an informal cease-fire that has largely held in the south for two years.

The southern war has pitted Sudan's Islamic-dominated government against rebels seeking greater autonomy and a greater share of the country's wealth for the Christian and animist south. The conflict is blamed for more than 2 million deaths, primarily from war-induced famine and disease.

Both sides have previously agreed on power and wealth sharing and how to integrate their armed forces. All that remains is how to implement the agreements -- for example, who will pay the rebel soldiers until they join the government forces and whether money distributed to the south will be in local or foreign currency.

The negotiators have promised to meet deadlines before, including a pledge to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to reach a final agreement by last Dec. 31. They have missed two further deadlines since then.

''We are keen, we are fully committed, to give the people of Sudan and to give Africa and the whole international community the gift of an agreement for the end of the year," Vice President Ali Osman Taha of Sudan told the Security Council.

John Garang, leader of the Sudan People's Liberation Army, the largest rebel group in the south, welcomed a resolution the council passed yesterday demanding that the two sides sign a final agreement by Dec. 31. ''We will do our best to fulfill our commitment," he said.

But as the government and the southern rebels have come closer to forming a new government, other insurgencies have emerged, complicating efforts for nationwide peace.

Renewed fighting in Darfur erupted in February 2003, when two non-Arab rebel groups took up arms contending Sudan's leaders leaned toward Arab tribes in disputes over the region's water and land. The government responded by backing Arab militias, which have been accused of targeting non-Arab civilians in a campaign of murder, rape, and arson.

The Bush administration maintains that the militias have committed genocide, Danforth said.

The Darfur conflict has driven 1.8 million people from their homes. At least 70,000 people, mostly civilians, have died since March because of disease, hunger, and hardships from being uprooted. Many more have been killed in fighting, but no firm estimate exists.

The Security Council came to Nairobi this week to pressure the Sudanese government and the southern rebels to finalize their deal. The council also used the extraordinary meeting, only the fourth outside New York since 1952, to underscore the deteriorating situation in Darfur and demand an immediate end to the violence. There was near consensus that settling the southern war would make it easier to bring peace to Darfur, because a new power-sharing government would include southern rebels who are sympathetic to the western region's rebels.

But human rights groups and aid agencies wanted the council to take stronger action on that conflict, protesting that a new national government would take months to start work, leaving the people of Darfur in limbo.

''From New York to Nairobi, a trail of weak resolutions on Darfur has led nowhere," said Caroline Nursey of Oxfam International.

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