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(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
JUBA, Sudan — Southern Sudan signed a cease-fire Wednesday with a renegade general four days before the oil-rich region votes in an independence referendum likely to create the world's newest country.
Fears of internal fighting have plagued the run-up to the referendum despite excitement among southerners that independence could bring peace to a region that has borne the brunt of conflict for most of the past 50 years.
Lt. Gen. George Athor defected from his position in the southern army earlier this year in order to run for governor in Jonglei state, the largest and most volatile of the south's 10 states. After losing the April vote, Athor launched a revolt against the southern government along with an unknown number of his troops.
The revolt waged by Athor and several other dissident military figures represented a significant security threat as the country prepared for Sunday's referendum.
Over the past six months, southern political and military officials accused Sudan's Khartoum-based government of backing insurrection leaders, though analysts said the insurrections were linked to political tensions within the south.
Southern Sudanese Vice President Riek Machar presided over the signing of the cease-fire agreement late Wednesday in Juba, Southern Sudan's capital. The deal included terms for the reintegration of Athor's dissident forces in the southern army. It did not detail the position Athor would resume in the southern army.
Abraham Thon, the head of Athor's delegation, said the signing of the cease-fire was "the end to all the troubles of the people of Southern Sudan."
"There is no longer a place for tribalism and nepotism from this day forth," Thon said.
Speaking on behalf of the southern army's negotiating team, Brig. Gen. Michael Majur said the deal marked a "new dawn of 2011."
David Gressly, head of the United Nations mission in Southern Sudan, said the agreement is "one more reflection of the many steps that have been taken since 2005," when the north-south peace deal was signed, ending more than two decades of war that killed an estimated 2 million people.
Gressly said "everything looks very positive" ahead of the south's weeklong referendum. Polls open Sunday and close the following Saturday.
Athor's first attack was against the army's base in the tense and remote area southwest of the Upper Nile state capital Malakal. Eight people were killed. Clashes also occurred in May and June. The most recent was in mid-December and killed at least 20 soldiers, according to the southern army.