NAIROBI, Kenya — Hoping to put an end to nearly two decades of bloodshed that has left hundreds of thousands dead and millions more displaced, the transitional government of Sudan signed a peace agreement with an alliance of rebel groups on Monday to end fighting in Darfur and the southern regions of South Kordofan and the Blue Nile.
It was the first major breakthrough in a peace process that started soon after the ouster of Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the longtime Sudanese dictator accused of atrocities in Darfur that earned him an indictment on genocide charges in an international court.
After Mr. al-Bashir was ousted in April 2019, a joint military-civilian government promised to bring both democracy and peace. But with violence and massacres in Darfur being reported as recently as July, there was concern that promises of peace would once again fall short and the nation would descend into a familiar cycle of bloodshed.
While observers cautioned that Monday’s deal needed to be followed with concrete reforms, it was widely viewed as a critical first step to a more enduring peace. More than 300,000 people have been killed in years of fighting in Darfur, according to the United Nations. Another 2.7 million were forced from their homes. Thousands more have died in fighting in South Kordofan and the Blue Nile since fighting first broke out in the region in 2011.
Reasons for caution remain, observers said: At least two rebel factions did not join the peace talks, and previous accords, including in 2006 and 2011, have failed to end the killing.
While the largest armed groups were involved in the talks and, under the terms of the agreement, militants will now be able to transition into the national security forces, it was still unclear whether the military itself would be reformed.
Still, previous agreements came when Mr. al-Bashir controlled Sudan and there was hope that the change in government could help break past cycles of violence.
Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok of Sudan said it was a moment for optimism, dedicating the agreement to “children who were born in displacement and refugee camps and to the mothers and fathers who miss their villages and cities.”
He said that since the protests first erupted against the rule of Mr. al-Bashir in December 2018, the Sudanese people had looked hopefully for “the promise of justice, the promise of development, and the promise of safety.”
“Today is the beginning of the road to peace, a peace that needs a strong and solid will,” he said.
The deal was signed in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, where the transitional government and rebel factions have been negotiating for almost a year.
The final agreement covers issues related to power sharing, transitional justice, integrating rebel forces into the army, the return of displaced people and land ownership.
Mr. Hamdok was accompanied in Juba by Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of Sudan’s 11-member sovereign council, and his deputy, Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan, also known as Hemeti. General Hamdan was an enforcer for Mr. al-Bashir and himself once led a militia accused of genocidal violence in Darfur.
They were joined by the South Sudanese president, Salva Kiir. A fragile peace is also holding in South Sudan, where more than 400,000 people have been killed since a civil war began in 2013.
With the men sat together on a podium for a signing ceremony, the room broke into applause and ululations as members of rebel groups waved the signed peace documents in the air. Representatives from governments including Ethiopia, Egypt, Chad and Britain were also at the ceremony.
The Darfur conflict began in 2003 when rebels from the region launched an insurgency against the government following complaints of political and economic marginalization by Mr. al-Bashir and the Arab-dominated leadership in Khartoum.
In 2009, the International Criminal Court indicted Mr. al-Bashir over crimes in the region, including accusations of genocide, rape, torture and contaminating wells and water pumps of communities thought to be close to the armed groups.
After a three-decade rule, Mr. al-Bashir, 76, was ousted from office last spring after months of protests, triggered by austerity measures and cuts to bread and fuel subsidies. Last December, he was found guilty of possessing foreign currency and receiving illegal gifts and sentenced to two years in detention. The authorities also said they would begin investigations into atrocities committed during his rule in Darfur, with some leaders in Sudan’s governing council saying he might be sent to The Hague.
In June, a key Sudanese militia leader sought by the International Criminal Court on accusations of crimes against humanity in Darfur was arrested in the Central African Republic.
The conflict in the Blue Nile and South Kordofan region flared up in 2011, just months after South Sudan was granted independence. Rights organizations accused Mr. al-Bashir’s government of carrying out aerial bombardments in the area, killing civilians in their homes and causing extensive damage to property and livestock.
Since coming to power, Mr. Hamdok has introduced long-awaited political and economic reforms and has promised his administration would deliver peace and justice to victims.
Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Sudan, a trip aimed at supporting the country’s fragile transitional period. Mr. Hamdok and Mr. Pompeo discussed efforts to remove Sudan from the United States’ list of state sponsors of terrorism — a designation that has crippled Sudan’s economy and deterred foreign investment.
While the peace deal in Juba was hailed by the leaders involved as momentous, experts said the fact that two key rebel groups boycotted the talks could jeopardize the chance for a lasting end to the violence.
“Today’s deal addresses many of the symptoms of violence, but not the underlying illness that has kept the country in a state of perpetual civil war since independence,” said Cameron Hudson, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.
He cautioned that “it’s a peace agreement that integrates armed movements but doesn’t reform the armed forces who are ultimately responsible for most of the past violence.”