Sudan, the largest country in Africa, was ruled jointly by Britain and Egypt from 1899 until achieving independence as a parliamentary republic at the beginning of 1956.
Since then Sudan has been ruled by a succession of unstable civilian and military governments. The country has been in a state of civil war for many years, and human rights abuses are widespread.
In the 1990s government forces have repeatedly launched aerial bombardments on civilian targets in southern Sudan.
Since 1983 over 1.2m people have been killed, and the civil war has devastated the Sudanese economy.
It costs the government an estimated $1.5m a day.
A peace agreement in 1972 ended the first civil war after independence, and made some movement towards federalism.
However, tensions between the authorities in Khartoum and those in the Southern region, and divisions between different groups of southerners, led to further outbreaks of violence in the early 1980s.
Sudan has experienced a long-running conflict between the Arab Muslim northerners of Sudan, (the base of the Government), and the black Africans of the south, who practise mainly Christian or animist beliefs.
This conflict worsened following the imposition of strict Muslim—Shari’a—law in 1983 under then-President Nimeri.
Two years later Nimeri was deposed in a bloodless coup and the new regime relaxed of the application of Shari’a law to non-Muslims in 1986.
Nonetheless the Sudan’s People’s Liberation Army increased its attacks on the north to the level of full-scale civil war in the mid-1980s.
Negotiations between the government and the political wing of the SPLA—the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement—occurred in 1988 and 1989, but they were overtaken by events, when General Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir took power in a military coup in June 1989, banning all political parties in the country.
In January 1991 his government gave the southern states a non-Shari’a legal system, and considerable autonomy in internal affairs. However, non-Muslims living in the north of the country were still subject to Shari’a law.
The last round of peace negotiations between the government and the SPLA broke down in September 1994 over this issue.
The government pulled out of the talks after accusing the non-Muslim regional states who were sponsoring the talks of bias against the Islamist regime.
In April 1997 the Sudanese government signed a peace agreement with five other southern leaders. It agreed to hold a referendum on the self-determination of the South in three years’ time.
It is hoping to sign a similar peace agreement with the SPLA and held talks with them in October 1997.
The opposition in Sudan is so divided that some opposition leaders talk of a complete disintegration of Sudan—in the manner of Somalia.
This would have serious consequences for Africa as a whole: Sudan borders nine other countries.
On March 12, Sudan offered the SPLA rebels a ceasefire.
The Egyptian Government announced in early March that it intended to launch an initiative to promote peace in Sudan, and avoid the partition of the country.
During 1996 the opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA) began military activity close to the Eritrean border.
In January 1997 the rebels launched a major offensive from Eritrea, which considerably disconcerted the government in Khartoum, capturing a huge area in the south.
The Sudan famine brought a ceasefire in the worst-hit areas in 1998, in particular the Bahr al Ghazal region. But while the truce—extended in October and again in January 1999—brought some respite for civilians, other areas were not covered.
The Khartoum government was accused by international aid agencies of bombing hospitals in the southern town Kajo Kaji in January this year.