NAIVASHA, Kenya – Sudan's (search) government and rebels signed key agreements on Wednesday, resolving the last remaining issues needed to end Africa's longest-running war.
The adversaries signed three protocols on power-sharing and on how to administrate three disputed areas in central Sudan -- all major stumbling blocks preventing them from reaching a final deal earlier.
All that remains for the government and the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (search) to work out are procedural matters to end the 21-year civil war, in which more than 2 million people have died, mostly from war-induced famine.
The signing took place in Naivasha, 60 miles west of the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. But the accord is unrelated to fighting in the Darfur region (search) of western Sudan, where fighting between the government and rebels have raised fears of ethnic cleansing.
Despite Wednesday's agreement, it could take months to determine if the diplomatic solution will translate to peace on the ground.
"We have reached the crest of the last hill in our tortuous ascent to the heights of peace," rebel leader John Garang said after the signing. "There are no more hills ahead of us, the remaining is flat ground."
Chief mediator, Lazaro Sumbeiywo, said the final round of talks, when the parties will work out a comprehensive deal and work out the details of implementing the accords -- will begin in Nairobi next month and should conclude by July 15.
Secretary of State Colin Powell reportedly got involved Wednesday when approval for the agreements was delayed for several hours because of last-minute disputes over power-sharing.
A Western diplomat at the talks said Powell telephoned Garang to discuss the delays.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the signing will trigger a process leading to the establishment of normal relations with Sudan if certain conditions are met.
Boucher said these include the completion of a comprehensive peace agreement to end the southern conflict and an end to the violence in Darfur, where a 15-month rebellion has made more than 1 million people homeless.
U.N. officials have described the situation in Darfur as the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
Garang said he hoped the peace process for the southern conflict would have "a favorable knock-on affect," for Darfur.
The latest effort to end the southern conflict began in Kenya in 2002 and Sudan's government and the rebels have already agreed on how to share the wealth in Africa's largest country and what to do with their armed forces during a six-year transition period.
But the talks stalled in recent months as the parties wrangled over how to share power in a transitional government, whether the capital, Khartoum, should be governed under Islamic law and how Southern Blue Nile, Nuba Mountains and Abyei -- areas in central Sudan -- should be administered during the transition period.
Wednesday's signing covered those outstanding issues.
Sudanese Transport Minister Elsamani Elwasila Elsamani told The Associated Press the parties have agreed that in northern Sudan the government and northern groups will have 70 percent of positions in federal and state government, while the rebels and other southern groups will have 30 percent.
In the south, the rebels and other southern groups will have 70 percent of positions, while the government and northern groups will have 30 percent. Elsamani declined to detail the power-sharing arrangements for the three disputed areas.
Khartoum will be governed under Islamic law, he said, adding that there will be provisions for non-Muslims, but no special protections or exemptions. He didn't elaborate.
Yasir Arman, a rebel official, said the agreements reached between the southern rebels and the government could be used as a model to solve conflicts in other parts of Sudan.
"This should impact positively on the situation in Darfur and eastern Sudan for a comprehensive and just peace," he said.
The southern conflict broke out in 1983 after the rebels from the mainly animist and Christian south took up arms against the predominantly Arab and Muslim north.
The insurgents say they are fighting for better treatment and for southerners to have the right to choose whether to remain part of Sudan. Southerners will vote in a referendum at the end of the transition on whether to secede.
Although often simplified as a religious war, the conflict is fueled by historical disputes and competition for resources, including major oil reserves.