Abuja, Nigeria Sudan's government said Saturday that its peace accord with Darfur's main insurgent group could pave the way for it to welcome U.N. peacekeepers, as mediators worked to persuade the rest of the fractured rebel movement to join the process.
The peace agreement, reached Friday in Abuja with one branch of the Sudan Liberation Army after two years of sporadic negotiations, aims to end ethnic bloodshed that has killed at least 180,000 people in three years and left some 2 million displaced.
The suggestion that it could pave the way for a deployment of U.N. peacekeepers overturns previous rejections by Khartoum, which so far has allowed only African Union peacekeepers on the ground.
"The Sudan government will be open for any assistance," Bakri Mulah, secretary-general for external affairs in Sudan's Information Ministry, told The Associated Press in Khartoum, Sudan. "It will not reject or oppose any effort either from the EU or from the United States or from the United Nations in realizing peace in Darfur on the grounds of this agreement."
The underfunded African forces have largely been ineffective in stopping atrocities and re-establishing security, leaving tens of thousands of refugees in camps with little food or water.
Decades of low-level tribal clashes over land and water in Darfur, a vast region about the size of France, erupted into large-scale violence in early 2003 with rebels demanding regional autonomy. The government is accused of responding by unleashing Janjaweed militias upon civilians, a charge Sudan denies.
The peace deal calls for a cease-fire, disarmament of government-linked militias, the integration of thousands of rebel fighters into Sudan's armed forces and a protection force for civilians in the immediate aftermath of the war.
Yet there were concerns that the deal could fall apart. Both sides have a history of failing to honor agreements, and the fledgling accord was struck with only one rebel group and only after intense pressure from the United States, which sent Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick and letters from President Bush.
Mediators on Saturday were still trying to persuade the second largest rebel group - another branch of the Sudan Liberation Army, backed by the Fur tribe, Darfur's largest - to join the deal.
Fighting intensified in recent days, which was interpreted as fighters jockeying for territory before the signing.