Delegates at yesterday's signing ceremony in Naivasha, Kenya, broke into cheers when the signing was completed by the top negotiators from the two sides -- Sudan's First Vice President Ali Osman Mohamed Taha and rebel leader John Garang of the so-called Sudanese People's Liberation Army.
But international aid agencies are warning that a separate crisis in western Sudan could worsen in the weeks ahead when the approaching rainy season could complicate efforts to feed and care for more than one million people who have fled their homes.
Stephen Ellis, the director of the Africa program of the International Crisis Group, told RFE/RL today that a massive humanitarian disaster in Sudan's western region of Darfur now appears inevitable this summer.
"The signature of a peace treaty between north and south, while good news in itself, does nothing to address the Darfur problem. The crisis in the west of the country -- which has involved the [Sudanese] government forces employing scorched-earth tactics in face of an insurrection in the west of the country -- is certainly going to lead to famine in the next few weeks. And I'm afraid that the signature of a peace treaty in the south is going to do nothing to address that," Ellis said.
The government in Khartoum has repeatedly denied charges that its troops have been working together with Arab militiamen, known locally as the "Janjawid." Sudanese officials say their troops are merely trying to put down an insurrection and restore order.
But nongovernmental groups like London-based Amnesty International and U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, as well as UN emergency relief workers in Sudan, say there is no doubt that troops of the Arab-dominated Sudanese government are working with the Arab militia in a massive campaign against non-Arab farmers in the west of the country.
Ellis says the International Crisis Group also has researchers and other contacts in the region who have confirmed the allegations.
"Some people are using the word ethnic cleansing. Some people are even using the term genocide. Clearly, what is taking place is an absolutely massive and coordinated campaign to chase people out of the rural areas of Darfur, which is an area the size of France, and to push them into camps for displaced people or into the cities where they are easier to control. The people who are carrying out this campaign are the Sudanese government armed forces, including the air force, and also a local militia known as the Janjawid," Ellis said.
Ellis says largely Arab ethnicity of the Janjawid militia makes the conflict in Darfur and ethnic one.
"Here comes in the ethnic element, because the Janjawid are overwhelmingly an Arab militia made up of local tribes from the area who are, by and large, nomadic. And the people they are proceeding against are, by and large, Sudanese farmers," Ellis said.
The Sudanese government signed a cease-fire in early April with indigenous rebel groups that took up arms a year ago amid complaints that Darfur's black African population was being marginalized.
In fact, about half of Sudan's population is Arab. The remainder of the population includes various tribal and ethnic minority groups such as the Dinka, Nuba, Beja, Nuer, Azande, Bari, Shiluk, and Lutuko.
According to Sudan's latest census, 73 percent of the Sudanese people are Sunni Muslims. Animists who follow traditional beliefs are Sudan's second-largest religious group -- about 17 percent of the population. About 9 percent of the population are said to be Christians.
George Ngwa, of the London-based group Amnesty International, told RFE/RL that widespread human rights abuses have continued in Darfur despite last month's cease-fire. Ngwa says the violence has included aerial bombardments of civilian areas.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said that regardless of how the Sudanese government describes the violence in western Sudan, the international community cannot stand by idly while a major humanitarian disaster unfolds.
Both UN officials and U.S. President George W. Bush have repeatedly called on the Sudanese government to bring an end to attacks by Arab militiamen in Darfur. President Bush also has demanded that the Sudanese government allow humanitarian workers to distribute aid in the region.
But Jan Egeland, coordinator of the United Nations' emergency relief operations in Darfur, said yesterday that the Sudanese government continues to obstruct aid deliveries.
"We are still having problems with having our trucks accepted if they come from outside of Sudan and having our medicines accepted if they come from outside of Sudan, and in having the international NGOs recognized as being our operatives for distributing of food and distributing our relief. If the government continues to insist on these obstacles, we will not win this race against the clock and many people will die," Egeland said.
Egeland agrees with experts and aid workers who say a humanitarian disaster appears imminent in Darfur. But he still expresses hope that international pressure will cause the government in Khartoum to change its policies in time to avert disaster.
"It is the most dramatic race against the clock that we have anywhere in the world at the moment. If we win this race, we will be able to provide food and non-food [aid] to all of these internally displaced refugees. If we lose, hundreds of thousands of women and children, mostly, will perish," Egeland said.
The United States has listed Sudan as a "state sponsor of terrorism" based on Khartoum's record of protecting militant Islamists and hosting Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden during the early 1990s.