DOHA, Qatar — Sudan's government and a collection of Darfur rebel groups signed a cease-fire Thursday – the second such deal in less than a month with a key rebel faction – opening the way for political negotiations ahead of a full peace agreement.
The Sudanese government now has truces with two major rebel blocs, leaving mainly the Sudan Liberation Movement led by Paris-based Abdelwahid Elnur on the outside – though the history of the conflict has been marked by failed peace agreements.
Arduous negotiations on power and resource sharing, the main demand of the rebels, still lie ahead.
Thursday's truce was with the newly formed Liberation and Justice Movement, an umbrella organization of several smaller rebel groups, including some who broke away from the SLM.
Ibrahim Gambari, the joint special representative of the U.N. and the African Union in Darfur, told the ceremony that the signing "represents yet another important milestone in the road toward the destination of an all inclusive and comprehensive peace agreement that should usher in durable peace and stability in Darfur."
He warned, however, that the key to the agreement was the commitment of all parties to the implementation.
Sudan's Vice President Ali Osman Taha vowed at the ceremony that his government would be fully committed to pushing forward with the political talks to reach final peace agreement.
There have been a string of partial peace agreements in the past, starting with one signed in Abuja, Nigeria in 2006 that involved a single rebel leader and did nothing to stem the fighting. Comprehensive peace talks with the rebels broke down in 2007 with little movement for the next two years.
The U.N. estimates that some 300,000 people have died and 2.7 million have been displaced since ethnic African tribesman in the vast arid western Darfur region took up arms against the Arab-dominated central government complaining of discrimination, lack of political representation and neglect.
In a worrying sign for the success of further peace talks, the JEM representative in Doha, who already have signed a truce with the government, immediately condemned Thursday's agreement, saying they had not been informed.
"We were surprised with this announcement, and this will cause more damage in Darfur," Ahmed Tugod told The Associated Press by phone. "We didn't send a representative and JEM is boycotting and concerned about the actions today."
JEM has said it would prefer to represent all rebel groups in negotiations with the government. The group is militarily the most powerful of the rebels and in May 2008 mounted an audacious assault that took it to the gates of the Sudanese capital.
Elnur's SLM, meanwhile, has refused to negotiate with the government until it disarms its militias and all fighting ceases in the vast arid region.
Once the most powerful rebel group, the SLM has splintered into dozens of smaller groups and lost ground militarily. Elnur's faction, however, retains a great deal of support in Darfur's sprawling refugee camps.
Associated Press Writer Edith Lederer contributed to this report from the United Nations.
(This version CORRECTS name of JEM spox graf 11)