Gov't, eastern rebels sign peace agreement

The Sudanese government and Eastern Front rebels have signed a peace agreement designed to end conflict in the east of the country, officials said.

The agreement, signed on Sunday in the Eritrean capital, Asmara, follows several months of talks between Sudanese officials and representatives of the Eastern Front. It provides for power- and resource-sharing between Sudan's Government of National Unity and the three eastern Sudan states of Kassala, Red Sea and Gaderaf.

"What is unusual about this agreement is that both sides had the political will to resolve the conflict and there was no pressure from external forces," Ali Abdu, Eritrea's information minister told IRIN, adding that his country had only facilitated the peace process.

"It is an exemplary message to the world that Africans can solve their problems without foreigners," he added.

The Eastern Front - an alliance between two rebel movements, the Beja Congress and a smaller insurgent group, the Rashaida Free Lions - has been active in the remote region near the Eritrean border. The front said it had taken up arms against the Sudanese government in a bid to end the marginalisation of the region and to demand greater autonomy.

The Eastern Front saw the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the government and the southern Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) in January 2005, to end civil war in southern Sudan, as a model political arrangement for its own region.

Under the power-sharing part of the deal, the Eastern Front will get the post of one assistant to the president, a presidential adviser and one state minister's post. The front will also be given eight parliamentary seats in Khartoum, the nation's capital, and 10 parliamentary seats in each of the three eastern states.

"The sharing and the allocation of the wealth of Sudan shall be based on the premise that all parts of Sudan are entitled to development and that war-affected areas should be beneficiaries of affirmative action," according to the text of the agreement.

Many members of the Beja community live in shantytowns on the outskirts of Port Sudan, having moved there to work as labourers after famine killed their cattle and mechanised farming took over their lands in the 1980s.

Eastern Sudan is strategically important for the country. Significant installations in the area include Port Sudan - the country's economic lifeline since most trade passes through it - the oil pipeline, many irrigated and semi-mechanised agricultural schemes, and a long border with Eritrea, with whom Sudan has had rocky relations for the past 12 years. Due in part to the region's economic and strategic significance, as well as the military activities since the mid-1990s, the government has a heavy security presence there, involving, according to the International Crisis Group, three times as many forces as in the war-ravaged western region of Darfur, where insecurity has escalated since May.

The SPLA, which was allied to some of the rebel forces in the east before the signing of the CPA, withdrew its forces from the east in June, following which more Sudanese armed forces were deployed in the area.