Darfur Peace Deal to Be Signed in Qatar

A historic peace deal is expected to be signed today by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and leaders from the country's largest opposition group.

Members of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) will join Bashir and officials from the U.S. and the U.N. for the signing in Doha Qatar, which Bashir hailed as marking "the start of the end of the war in Darfur," according to AFP.

Also joining the signing will be Chadian President Idriss Deby, whom Bashir credited as being an influential figure in the creation of the deal.

A statement released by the U.S. State Department on Monday praised the deal as being "an important first step toward reducing violence in Darfur" and encouraged Bashir and the JEM to pursue a "comprehensive agreement" that will include the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA).

The SLA, meanwhile, has rejected the deal and is refusing negotiations with the government.

The agreement is considered as a preliminary "framework" to a full cease-fire between the JEM and the Sudanese government, which is scheduled to be signed on March 15, although some officials have considered the deadline too ambitious.

"We are working to meet the March 15 deadline, but that itself is not a requirement," chief JEM negotiator Ahmed Tugud told Reuters.

The Sudanese government has also offered JEM members civic positions as a part of the deal, although reports have said the JEM is considering forming an opposition group instead.

The JEM "looks like its repositioning itself in Sudanese politics to become an important political player - either in the government or perhaps as a leading opposition group," an Al Jazeera correspondent in Doha reported.

The peace agreement comes ahead of Sudan's first elections in 24 years, which will be held in April.

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