Sudanese government signs landmark reconciliation deal with opposition

by Ming Jinwei, Yang Wenjing

CAIRO, Jun 18, 2005 (Xinhua via COMTEX) -- The Sudanese government signed a comprehensive reconciliation deal here on Saturday with the opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in a move believed to change the political landscape of the conflict-ridden African country.

The agreement, inked by Sudan's First Vice President Ali Osman Taha and NDA leader Mohamed Osman al-Merghani, ends 16 years of hostilities between Khartoum and the country's largest opposition group.

The NDA, an umbrella opposition group, includes a dozen or so largely northern political parties, trade union representatives and the southern rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM).

The group has been battling both politically and militarily the government of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir ever since he came to power in a military coup in 1989.

The agreement, whose details are not immediately known, came after Sudanese officials and NDA representatives sorted out their differences over the group's armed forces in east Sudan and the lineup of a power-sharing national unity government to be set up by July 9.

"The implementation of this agreement on the ground requires all parties to shoulder the national responsibility," NDA leader Merghani said after signing the deal amid heart-felt cheers and applause from supporters.

"The strategic aim is to work to reach a comprehensive political solution to the Sudanese problem," declared the opposition leader.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Bashir joined hundreds of representatives of the Sudanese government and the NDA who attended the signing ceremony at the Cairo International Conference Center.

Supporters of Khartoum and the NDA frequently erupted into cheers and chanted slogans like "God is great" and "One people, one country" when the leaders delivered their speeches.

"Sudan can affirm today its ability to move from the state of war and confrontation to the state of dialogue and reconciliation," said Taha amid joyful cheers from the audience.

"The people of Sudan are determined to move ahead toward the horizons of participation and reconstruction and to restore a Sudan capable of positive contribution to regional and international peace and stability," he added.

"The interest of Sudan is above all partisan and personal interests," he went on.

The agreement, which came some six months after the SPLM signed a comprehensive peace deal with the Sudanese government to end a 21-year civil war in the south, will help further boost peace prospects in the country, analysts said.

Under the Cairo agreement, NDA leaders living abroad would return home and some of them are expected to join the national unity government.

However, several other opposition groups, including the Ummah party and two rebel groups in Sudan's western Darfur region, were excluded from the deal, signalling the tough challenge for Sudan to reach a comprehensive peace.

Thousands of people have been killed and hundreds of thousands forced to flee their homes since rebel groups took up arms against the government in Darfur in February 2003.

The two Darfur-based rebel groups, namely the Justice and Equality Movement and the Sudan Liberation Army, resumed peace talks with the Sudanese government on June 10 in the Nigerian capital Abuja under the auspices of the African Union.

Egypt has long been a mediator in Sudan's peace process. Besides efforts to secure the Cairo agreement between Khartoum and the NDA, President Mubarak had attended two African mini-summits on the Darfur issue hosted by Libya since last October.

The Egyptian mediation efforts are partly due to traditionally strong ties between two neighbors, but they were also seen as a result of Egypt's eagerness to get involved in African issues as the country is seeking a seat on the UN Security Council as an African candidate.