Nairobi, Kenya (CNSNews.com) - The warring parties in Sudan's 21-year-long civil war will sign a memorandum of understanding Friday, committing them to signing a comprehensive peace agreement by year's end, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Danforth said here Thursday.
Acknowledging that there had been disappointments and delays in the past during a three-year effort to reach that point, Danforth nonetheless voiced cautious optimism.
"I can say that I am very encouraged by the fact that both sides are going to sign this agreement of understanding tomorrow, that they are going to sign it in the presence of the Security Council," Danforth said in remarks released by the U.S. mission to the U.N.
"It will be witnessed by the members of the Security Council, and both sides realize that time is of the essence. So I feel as good as I can about it," he added.
Danforth was speaking after the first day of a special session of the Security Council in the Kenyan capital, the first time in 14 years the body has met outside of U.N. headquarters in New York.
Earlier, diplomatic sources said Khartoum faced economic and political sanctions if the agreement was not signed by Dec. 31.
The conflict has been between the Muslim Arab regime in Khartoum and the black African south, most of whose inhabitants are Christians or animists. Human rights groups estimated that up to two million people have died in the fighting and accompanying famine over the past two decades.
Representatives of the Sudanese government and the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Army (SPLA) rebels both addressed the Council session.
Sudanese Vice President Ali Osman Taha, while not mentioning the Dec. 31 deadline in his speech, said Khartoum was committed to "establishing peace and stability" across Sudan.
He also said that the separate war in the western region of Darfur was being "instigated by local parties who receive support from foreign parties."
The U.N., some Western governments and relief agencies have accused Khartoum of supporting Arab militias responsible for atrocities against inhabitants of the Darfur region. That conflict, which also involves two African rebel groups, has cost tens of thousands of lives, and resulted in what the U.N. has described as the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
In his comments, Danforth said it was "almost universally accepted" that the resolution of the north-south civil war "is critical to the resolution of Darfur."
SPLA leader John Garang told CNSNews.com that he hoped "common sense will prevail" and that the agreement would be signed by Dec. 31.
"Both parties will do what is necessary to adhere to the Security Council [memorandum of understanding]," said Garang.
Garang added that if the deadline expired without the final peace deal signed, then the "international community will decide what to do with Khartoum," including the possibility of imposing sanctions.
Finalizing and implementing the peace process was the only option for his country, he said.
"The alternative is mind boggling; it is the disintegration of Sudan," said Garang.
Garang said peace between the north and south would bring a paradigm shift in the politics of Sudan, making it a country that accepts all of its people, irrespective of color, sex or religion.
"We need a political solution to conflicts in Sudan rather than the counter insurgency strategy of using tribes against tribes, like what the government is doing in Dafur," he added.
Garang is tipped to be Sudan's first vice president when a six-year transitional government is formed under the peace agreement.
The special session of the Security Council was proposed by the U.S. government in a bid to give a new impetus to the efforts to end the conflicts in both the southern and western Sudan.
Danforth told reporters Thursday that coming to Nairobi was risky in that "we were putting the reputation of the Council at stake."
"But in the view of the Security Council, Sudan is so important and establishing peace is so important to the stability of Africa that we were willing to take that risk."
Danforth said all members of the Council felt that the decision on the MOU signing was "precipitated by our presence."
While in Nairobi, the Council is also expected to discuss peacekeeping efforts in Somalia, which has had no central government for 14 years but recently held elections.
The Council will end its session on Friday with a likely resolution promising financial and political support for any peace agreements in Sudan.
Council members are divided on whether the council should threaten to impose sanctions if the deadline is not reached. China, Pakistan and Algeria are reportedly reluctant to exert additional pressure on the Khartoum regime.
(CNSNews International Editor Patrick Goodenough contributed to this report.)
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