Darfur's most powerful rebel group and the Sudanese government have signed a truce after a year of internationally sponsored negotiations, raising hopes the bloody seven-year conflict could draw to a close.
Rebel leader Khalil Ibrahim of the Justice and Equality Movement declared the cease-fire would begin immediately after Tuesday night's signing ceremony as the international sponsors of the talks announced a $1 billion development fund for the war ravaged region.
The once bitter enemies, Ibrahim and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, shook hands and embraced after the signing. The ceremony, hosted by Qatar's Emir Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, was attended by US, UN, African and Arab representatives among others.
The next challenge for the mediators will be getting the dozens of other rebel splinter groups to join the process as the arduous power and wealth-sharing talks begin, especially since JEM is primarily a military movement without the popular base of other rebel groups.
Previous cease-fires and partial peace deals have been short-lived.
"This framework agreement is a very important step," Ibrahim said. "We point out, however, that the road to peace still needs much patience and honest concessions from both sides."
Al-Bashir said he hoped to see a full peace agreement by mid-March and praised the presence of other rebel groups at the ceremony, saying recent steps by them to unify their fractious positions was "good news."
"With this agreement, we take a major step toward ending the war," he said.
The UN 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.
"The agreement represents an important step toward an inclusive and comprehensive peace agreement for Darfur, which will address the underlying causes of the conflict and the concerns of all Darfurian communities," UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said, citing Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
In the last year, violence has ebbed and government forces have gained control of much of France-sized territory.
The framework agreement, which will guide the upcoming talks, was initialed last week in Chad, Sudan's eastern neighbor which it once accused of harboring Darfur rebels.
The end of the long-running animosity between Sudan and Chad — which sponsored the truce only days after declaring the end to its long proxy war with Sudan — could be the deciding factor in this agreement's longevity.
"This is a point of transformation in the nature of the conflict," said Omar Hasballah, a former Sudanese intelligence officer. "Removing the threat of military operations is important and alone opens the way for dealing with issues of development, representation and compensation."
Al-Bashir, meanwhile, faces a tough international challenge. He is the first sitting head of state to be wanted by the Hague-based International Criminal Court, where he stands accused of war crimes committed in Darfur.
A settlement in Darfur would defuse criticism abroad and boost his legitimacy at home ahead of the crucial April national elections — the first multiparty elections in the country in decades. Al-Bashir is also running for re-election.
Tahir al-Faki, a JEM senior official, said the agreement commits the government to release all of its fighters currently on death row — nearly 100 — for their role in a massive attack on the capital in 2008.
According to the framework agreement, JEM would take part in the government's executive, judicial and legislative branches.
"We agreed that JEM shall transform itself into a political party," he told The Associated Press. "As time goes on, and if the agreement is implemented well, then JEM forces will be integrated into the Sudanese Armed Forces."
Al-Faki said the goal is to work out the details before March 15. JEM, whose leader Ibrahim was once a minister in al-Bashir's government before joining the rebellion, had asked the government to delay the April elections so that its group can take part.
The government so far has not made a formal response.
JEM is the most powerful rebel group, but not the only one. The splintering of the rebels into dozens of factions has made implementing any kind of peace agreement difficult.
The rebel group that first launched the rebellion, the Sudan Liberation Movement, however, has shunned the peace talks. Although a shadow of its former strength as it has splintered, the group's exiled leader remains deeply popular among Darfur's refugee community.
Abdelwahid Elnur said the agreement in Doha is "ceremonial" and will follow the fate of previous partial peace deals and warned that JEM is only looking for a place in the government.
"Peace is not to get a (government) post. Peace is the feeling of my people, those that I belong to, feeling of safety," he said in a telephone interview from Paris. "We get our legitimacy from our people on the ground. No one can exclude us at all."
He said the new deal will only add legitimacy to the Sudanese regime.
A group of splinter factions from Elnur's group have joined forces to participate in the political negotiations.
US helped shepherd the process and on Monday State Department spokesman
P.J. Crowley said the cease-fire agreement is an important step toward
reducing violence in Darfur.