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Sudanese peace deal gives hope for Darfur resolution

Sudan officially ends its two-decade southern civil war today with the signing of a peace deal. Amid the jubilation lies the hope that ending one war may spark a solution to the country's second _ in western Darfur, where an equally brutal conflict has led to a massive humanitarian crisis.

Sudan's president, caught up in the excitement of the long-awaited southern peace deal, has said he now would be willing to consider wealth- and power-sharing agreements with rebels in Darfur.

"The deal in the south puts Sudan on the doorstep of a new era of peace for the whole country," said Jean Baptiste Natama, a senior political officer with the African Union, which is mediating Darfur peace talks. "It is a means to the solution in Darfur, a necessary bridge."

But continued outbreaks of fighting in Darfur _ despite repeated assurances from both sides to honor a recent cease-fire pledge _ indicate just how difficult the problem might be to solve, even with new momentum.

The comprehensive peace deal for the southern war will be signed in Nairobi, Kenya. It comes after government and southern rebel officials on Dec. 31 concluded two years of peace talks by signing a permanent truce, and endorsed a detailed plan to end the conflict. It includes power- and wealth-sharing agreements and a proposed government for an autonomous southern Sudan.

Secretary of State Colin Powell traveled to Kenya on Saturday after touring the tsunami devastation in Asia. He was to attend today's peace signing.

He declined to say whether Sudan was still carrying out ethnic genocide in Darfur, but warned that the government could face U.N. penalties if the violence in the region continues.

Powell expressed no reservations that his presence was lending U.S. imprimatur to an incomplete solution in ethnically divided Sudan.

"I think this agreement stands on its own merits," Powell said at a news conference with the top rebel leader from the south, John Garang, and Sudan's vice president, Ali Osman Mohammed Taha.

"It brings a war to an end, but there are other wars taking place. . . . I think this gives us a basis now to redouble our efforts in Darfur," Powell said.

In September, Powell surprised and angered some U.S. allies when he used the term genocide to describe the nearly 2-year-old conflict in Darfur.

A report released Friday by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the violence in Darfur was growing worse. Some 70,000 people have died as a result of disease, hunger and attacks since March and nearly 2-million are believed to have fled their homes. Many more are believed to have died in the fighting.

Asked if the violence still amounts to genocide, Powell did not answer directly.

"It was my judgment that genocide was taking place," Powell said, with the Sudanese vice president at his side. "I have not seen the secretary-general's latest report, but I look forward to examining it."

Even before the southern deal was reached, officials inside and outside Sudan had linked the two conflicts, saying peace in the civil war would be key to making progress on the so-far intractable Darfur front.

Efforts for a Darfur solution have gone in fits and starts _ a Nov. 9 cease-fire signed in Abuja, Nigeria, between the government and the two main rebel groups has been repeatedly broken by both sides. And new insurgent groups have recently arisen to add strength to the resistance.

On Tuesday, the rebel Sudan Liberation Army accused government soldiers of attacking a base in north Darfur and threatened that rebels would step up military operations in retaliation.

Nevertheless, in its new focus on peace, the Sudanese government has given assurances that it is serious about solving the Darfur crisis.

Darfur is "definitely" next on the government's list of priorities, said Deputy Information Minister Abdel Dafe Khattib, saying the conclusion of the southern peace deal has brought a positive feeling.

"There is a different mood, one of trying to mend fences. I think it's going to help," he said.

The southern deal was a result both of Western pressure and Sudan's desire to end its pariah status in the international community, said Charles Gurdon, an analyst with a British consultancy firm.

"If Libya and Iraq and others can come off the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, Sudan also has to try," he said. "It is a calculated position _ this way they can have more time to sort out western Sudan."