Three rebel groups in Sudan have signed a peace accord brokered by African Union mediators on Tuesday to end deadly conflicts in Sudan's strife-torn Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan regions.
Thousands of people have been killed and millions displaced over the years in the three regions as ethnic minority groups rebelled against President Omar al Bashir's government.
When Khartoum representatives signed the roadmap at a previous round of talks in March in Addis Ababa, prominent rebel groups refused to do so.
But on Monday, three of these groups -- the Justice and Equality Movement, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) and a faction of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA-Minnawi) -- signed it in the Ethiopian capital.
Another faction of the Sudan Liberation Army, the SLA-AW, has yet to come on board.
"The top priority is to stop the wars and deliver humanitarian aid to people affected," Sudan Call, a Sudanese group comprising rebel movements and opposition political parties, said in a statement on Tuesday.
"The Sudanese people look forward to a comprehensive peace process."
The roadmap paves the way for a permanent ceasefire to be negotiated and ways for humanitarian aid to be delivered to the three areas.
"What happened yesterday is a positive step on the road to a comprehensive and peaceful solution to the Sudan crisis," spokesman for the Justice and Equality Movement Jibril Bilal said.
"We will now start direct negotiations for a ceasefire in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile," he said.
Bilal said a ceasefire will help "bring security to these three areas and also help deliver humanitarian aid to civilians" there.
EU lauds peace accord
A European Union statement welcomed the signing of the roadmap by rebel groups.
"The roadmap agreement constitutes a valuable step towards ending the wars in Sudan," it said.
"We urge the signatories to lose no further time in agreeing a cessation of hostilities and modalities for humanitarian access in the three regions," it said.
Monday's signing of the roadmap boosts Bashir's government as the initiative is backed by Washington, the European Union and regional countries.
It is also expected to give impetus to an ongoing broader national dialogue aimed at addressing overall discontent in Sudan and ease pressure on its sanctions-hit economy starved of hard currency since South Sudan separated in 2011.
"We welcome the signing of the roadmap by rebel groups," Bashir's National Congress Party said in a statement.
"This roadmap is an entry point to reaching a comprehensive political solution to end conflicts in Sudan," it said.
Aggravating economic conditions
The fighting in Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan has sucked a lot of resources from the economy and also hindered progress on debt relief, experts say.
Sudan owes tens of billions of dollars, and is under a US trade embargo.
The civil war in neighbouring South Sudan has further impacted Khartoum's economic recovery.
Sudan split into two countries in July 2011 after the people of the south voted for independence. While Khartoum says that the conflict in Darfur that erupted in 2003 has already ended, neither the government forces nor rebels have gained a decisive upper hand in Blue Nile and South Kordofan.
There has been fighting between the Sudanese army and rebels in the southern regions of Kordofan and Blue Nile since 2011, when adjacent South Sudan declared independence. Conflict in Darfur began in 2003 when different tribes took up arms against the central government in Khartoum. The wars in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, and the older insurgency in Darfur -- a region of the size of France -- are fuelled by complaints of economic and political neglect by Bashir's government.