Sudan's former foes begin to thrash out final deal

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KHARTOUM, Nov 6 (Reuters) Sudan's former foes today meet to seek a final deal to end a political crisis over implementation of a north-south peace agreement which has paralysed government for almost a month.

The former southern rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) withdrew its ministers from the national coalition government to protest what they said was a lack of action by the ruling party in Khartoum on a January 2005 agreement that ended two decades of war.

A high-level six-member committee will first meet Sudan's Vice President Ali Osman Mohamed Taha, architect of the accord which created a semi-autonomous authority in southern Sudan, shared wealth and enshrined democratic transformation.

''We are going to work on a daily basis ... and make decisions and a timetable,'' said Yasir Arman, a member of the committee and deputy secretary-general of the SPLM.

Arman said the SPLM ministers would not return to work until the committee had completed the agreement, adding it hoped to finish by the time SPLM head and First Vice President Salva Kiir returned from the United States and President Omar Hassan al-Bashir came back from an African tour.

But he said resolving the status of the disputed, central oil-rich Abyei region was key to any deal.

The dominant northern National Congress Party (NCP) rejected the findings of an independent commission of experts on the borders of the region, which remains without an administration or boundaries with troops from both sides present. Both the NCP and SPLM had agreed the experts' report would be binding.

Numerous attempts to find middle ground have failed, with many fearing the region could become the ''Kashmir'' of Sudan.

''Abyei remains the biggest problem facing the six-man committee,'' Arman told Reuters. ''Abyei is still a big hurdle and remains the only protocol which is zero implemented. This is creating a serious situation.'' The civil war - Africa's longest -- broadly pitted mostly Christian or animist rebels against Khartoum's Islamist government, complicated by issues of oil, ethnicity and ideology. It claimed some 2 million lives and drove 4 million from their homes.

The landmark 2005 agreement was hailed as a breakthrough for Africa's largest country and many fear its failure could destabilise the entire region.

Washington fears a failed state in Sudan would become a breeding ground for anti-US Islamist fighters and widen its ''war against terror''.

US Sudan envoy Andrew Natsios said after a trip last week to Sudan that he was optimistic after hearing flexible and constructive language from both sides.

Kiir left on Saturday for a trip to the United States lasting about a week.

Arman said presidential decrees were expected to be issued to confirm whatever was decided by the committee, adding all the decisions made should be implemented by January 9 at the latest.

REUTERS SS RAI1515

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