CAIRO — Darfur's most powerful rebel group and the Sudanese government on Tuesday 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 announced the cease-fire would begin that night 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 U.S., U.N., 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 progress 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 United Nations 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.