Sudanese governrment and rebel groups agree to end war

said he though another faction, led by Abdel Wahid Nur, could be persuaded to join the agreement. "Not all the movements are in accord, but we’re already getting phone calls that people with (rebel faction leader) Abdel Wahid (Nur) believe he has made a mistake," Zoellick told reporters in Abuja.

Western diplomats hope the deal, brokered by U.S. and British officials and African Union mediators, would allow a U.N. peacekeeping force into Darfur to protect the 8 million civilians who live there.

The accord provides for the carefully choreographed disarmament of Darfur rebels and government proxy militias, integration of a minimum 5,000 rebels into Sudan’s security forces, re-education of 3,000 rebels to prepare them for civilian life, help for the more than 2 million displaced Darfur residents, and prominent representation for the western Sudanese in the national government.

Humanitarian agencies hope the agreement will pave the way for relief groups to bring aid to the region, which has been too dangerous for many aid groups to operate, before the rainy season in June makes dirt roads in Darfur impassable for relief vehicles. The European Union’s executive Commission, which has been closely following the talks in the Nigerian capital, said Thursday it would contribute $125 million for a humanitarian and initial recovery package in Darfur.

The agreement calls for a protection force for civilians but does not specify who would be its members. Washington hopes Khartoum would allow United Nations peacekeepers, backed by NATO logistics and training, to monitor the peace process, augmenting the 7,000 thinly spread out and poorly equipped African Union troops, who have been unable to stem the bloodshed.

The African Union says it is running out of money to keep even these peacekeepers in Darfur for much longer, but Khartoum has been reluctant to accept U.N. troops, and terrorist leader Osama bin Laden last month urged his followers to go to Sudan to fight against them. Today, however, Sudanese officials signaled they were willing to accept U.N. peacekeepers.

"The government has no reservation whatsoever about any U.N. involvement or participation after the signing of the peace agreement," Zuma said. "The United Nations is the only party that could help us, really, in implementing this peace agreement."

But some Africa experts caution against accepting at face value Khartoum’s stated willingness to make concessions, and point out that both the Sudanese government and the rebels have repeatedly violated previous agreements, including an April 2004 ceasefire.

"I worry that the government’s quick acceptance of this…proposal means they aren’t really serious about implementing anything," said John Prendergast, a Sudan expert at the International Crisis Group and a former senior Africa specialist for the Clinton administration.

The war erupted in 2003 when rebels in Darfur, an ethnically-mixed wasteland the size of France, began attacking government targets, claiming that the Arab-led government in Khartoum was neglecting the region and oppressing black Africans in favor of Arabs.

Human rights activists accuse Sudan’s central government of responding by unleashing Arab tribal militias called the Janjaweed – "devils on horseback" – to murder and rape civilians and burn villages, but Khartoum denies the charge. Although most of Darfur’s residents are Muslims, the Janjaweed consider them apostates and say Islam allows to enslave, rape and slaughter them.

The humanitarian crisis and violence have spilled into the neighboring Chad, which has sheltered hundreds of thousands of Darfur refugees, and into the Central African Republic. Recently, various Chadian and Sudanese rebel groups began abducting men and boys from refugee camps in eastern Chad and press-ganging them into fighting, humanitarian agencies say.As attacks on non-Arab Muslim villagers in Darfur continue, starvation accompanies the violence. Aid workers say their food stocks for the region’s 2.8 million people who rely on food aid are nearly depleted. This week, the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP), the main agency providing aid in Sudan, slashed its food rations for refugees in Darfur to about half of what is considered the minimum daily nutritional requirement.

Although the peace agreement should ease access to the people in need of relief, it will not immediately alleviate the suffering of the starving millions, said Trevor Rowe, a WFP spokesman.

"War or peace, there’s still no money. People are still hungry. We don’t have food, we can’t (deliver it to) the regions that are affected," Rowe said. "If there’s a sudden outbreak of peace, I don’t know how the politics of humanitarianism change."

E-mail Anna Badkhen at [email protected].