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Rebel group signs Darfur peace pact

Ensuring pledges and rebuilding region come next

ABUJA, Nigeria -- Thanks in part to last-minute US diplomacy, two years of Darfur peace talks beset by setbacks and frustration ended with a signing ceremony yesterday.

Now the hard part: ensuring pledges to stop the fighting and begin rebuilding translate to an end to Darfur's suffering. The key may be a robust UN peacekeeping force, which Sudan's government has indicated it is now willing to accept.

While the main Darfur rebel group signed the accord, two others rejected it, saying it did not go far enough to meet their demands for security and power-sharing guarantees and compensation for war victims. Optimism was muted by the two groups' absence and by a history of failure to live up to agreements.

Members of the fractious rebel camp are united in accusing Sudan's central government of neglecting their impoverished western region, but divided because of leadership rivalries and differing approaches.

The peace deal was backed by the African Union, the United States, Britain, the European Union, and the Arab League. It calls for a cease-fire, disarmament of militias linked to the government and accused of some of the war's worst atrocities, the integration of thousands of rebel fighters into Sudan's armed forces, and a protection force for civilians in the immediate aftermath of the war.

Political provisions include guarantees that rebel factions will have the majority in Darfur's three state legislatures, although the rebels did not get the national vice presidency they had sought.

US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick indicated the two rebel groups that did not sign the accord could be bypassed, an assessment bolstered when one of the groups split yesterday, with dissenters criticizing their leader for not embracing the treaty. Zoellick said implementing the agreement would be a challenge, but that he was looking ahead to organizing a UN peacekeeping force for Darfur.

The Sudanese government initially rejected calls for UN peacekeepers to replace the thousands of African Union peacekeepers now in Darfur, but indicated yesterday that it would yield once the peace treaty was signed.

Observers broke into applause and cheers as the parties signed the last page and then proceeded to initial each of the 85 pages of a document written by the African Union and then revised by US, British, and other envoys to meet rebel concerns. The hall in a presidential villa was filled with leaders in white turbans, fighters in camouflage turbans, diplomats, and journalists.

''Unless the right spirit, unless the right attitude and right disposition is there, this document isn't worth the paper it is signed on," said President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, a key figure in peacemaking efforts across Africa and host of the protracted Darfur talks. ''Those who don't sign, we will continue to appeal to them. The window of opportunity must not be allowed to close."

At least 180,000 people have been killed and more than 2 million forced to flee their homes in what the United Nations has called one of the world's worst humanitarian crisis. The Darfur conflict, which erupted in February 2003, also has spilled into Chad and the Central African Republic.

The violence threatens to escalate: Osama bin Laden urged his followers last week to go to Sudan to fight a proposed UN presence. Aid groups say the security situation must be addressed quickly, in part to allow them to do their work. Oxfam called for bolstering the African Union force in Darfur yesterday, rather than awaiting UN peacekeepers, who could take months to arrive.

Louise Arbour, UN high commissioner for human rights, who just returned from a tour of Darfur, said in Khartoum yesterday that the peace deal ''will open up space for improvement," but first must be implemented. She added she hoped it would encourage donors to come back and help the people of Darfur.

The largest rebel group, Minni Minnawi's faction of the Sudan Liberation Movement, signed the accord. A faction led by his rival, Abdel Wahid Nur, and the smaller Justice and Equality Movement rejected it, expressing concerns that security and compensation for war victims had not been guaranteed and that the agreement called for a top presidential adviser from Darfur instead of a vice president.

Nur met with Obasanjo for hours yesterday, delaying the signing ceremony, and then briefly went into the hall where the accord was to be signed. He left, telling reporters the proposed accord was ''a big disaster" because he believed it did not go far enough to guarantee disarmament of the Janjaweed militia linked to the atrocities. Nigerian security forces tried to stop Nur from speaking to reporters, then barred reporters who had followed him out from returning to witness the signing.

Sudan's government agreed days ago to an initial proposal drafted by African Union mediators, and has been flexible as US and British officials fine-tuned it to address rebel concerns.

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