With violence increasing and political pressure mounting to end the conflict in Sudan's Darfur region, the government agreed Tuesday to halt military flights over the region and signed a separate agreement to allow free access to aid for the nearly 2 million people displaced by the violence.
At peace talks in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, the government agreed to disarm allied militiamen known as the Janjaweed. In security agreements signed by the government and rebel parties, both sides agreed to reveal the location of their forces to African Union cease-fire monitors in a war that the United Nations has called the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
"We still have a long way to go, but the step we have taken this afternoon is a very important step in the right direction," President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, chairman of the African Union, told reporters in Abuja after a signing ceremony.
But he was quick to add, "These documents won't be worth the paper they are written on if they are not scrupulously implemented on the ground."
Just a week ago, Sudan's government called the idea of a no-fly zone "unreasonable" and threatened to shut down the peace talks. But with violence still raging in Darfur's 20-month conflict between African rebels and pro-government forces, food aid has now been blocked to 200,000 people and large swaths of Darfur are "no-go" areas for U.N. humanitarian workers.
Sudan's decision comes 10 days before a meeting of the U.N. Security Council, which could have imposed sanctions on the country's oil industry or taken other punitive measures because of the worsening security situation in Darfur.
Since a cease-fire agreement was signed in April, it has been violated 180 times, or roughly once a day, the African Union says. The Sudanese government this week also drew international criticism for forcibly moving hundreds of families from one camp near the capital of South Darfur to another camp, where the families said they feared they would be subject to attacks.
Nearly 2 million Africans live in squalid tent cities across Darfur after being driven from their farms by the fighting, which broke out in February 2003 when African tribes rebelled against the Arab-led government.
In retaliation, the United Nations says, the government has bombed villages and armed the Janjaweed militias. Tens of thousands of people have died from hunger, disease and violence; the Bush administration has described the crisis as genocide.
Officials of the Sudanese government said the agreement showed they were working hard for peace in Darfur. "It is really a landmark agreement for Darfur," Sudanese spokesman Ibrahim Mohammed Ibrahim said in a telephone interview from Abjua. "We are serious and we want to do this."
During two weeks of often-tense African Union-sponsored talks, rebel leaders demanded the no-fly zone because, they said, the government continues to bomb civilians and is using the flights to determine rebel positions.
There was still no decision on political issues, including the African tribes' demands for a more equitable share in power and wealth with the central government in Khartoum. Analysts say such issues must be addressed to reach a lasting solution to the Darfur crisis.
"We are not there yet. We have to see what's going to happen in reality and in practice," said Mahgoub Hussain of the Sudan Liberation Army, the larger of two rebel groups at the peace talks. "We've had agreements like this in the past. A lot more needs to be done to enforce this."
Maj. George Wachira, who heads the African Union's cease-fire commission, said that establishing the no-fly zone was a positive move and that his team would be able to monitor it. The African Union has 700 troops on the ground now and is planning to deploy 2,300 more to monitor a shaky cease-fire.
"This no-fly zone is a good step and it's very needed. But it has to be kept. I wish everyone would just put their arms down and work on feeding these people and getting things back to normal," Wachira said. He added that it would be naive to think the peace deal will unfold without any violations from either side. "Promises have to be kept. We want to wait and see," he said.
Alfred Taban, editor and publisher of the Khartoum Monitor, the capital's independent English-language newspaper, noted that the government of Sudan had already promised to disband the Janjaweed militias months ago. Instead, the United Nations and human rights groups say, the militias have merged with Sudan's army and police.
"I think the new agreement is very important because this definitely lays down some restrictions on bombing civilians in Darfur," Taban said. "But the problem is that the government very often doesn't stick to agreements. This is a big concern. They can say they will do something and everyone will forget that it wasn't done."