Mohammed Osman al-Mirghani, who chairs the opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA), and Sudanese Vice President Ali Osman Taha signed the document during a ceremony in Cairo on Saturday.

"We are starting a new era where Sudan is free of struggle ... Let us work hand in hand to offer the Sudanese the prosperity they have been lacking," Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir said.

"This latest agreement clinched today will be the backbone of Sudanese unity," he added after the signing, which was attended by his Egyptian counterpart Hosni Mubarak.

The agreement is widely seen as the most significant development in Sudan since the 9 January North-South peace deal, and comes amid growing international pressure for a solution in war-torn Darfur.

"The Sudanese people are the main beneficiary of this agreement which heralds a new era in which all of us have to cooperate to achieve global peace, strengthen the march towards real democracy," Mirghani said.

Northern grievances

Vice President Taha said: "A sense of trust has been regained between the different partners in Sudan ... . This is a historical day for the Sudanese people."

Aljazeera's Hussain Abd al-Ghani said the agreement is the first deal which addresses the grievances of northern groups who have opposed Khartoum since al-Bashir's military coup in 1989.

"The Sudanese people are the main beneficiary of this agreement which heralds a new era in which all of us have to cooperate to achieve global peace, strengthen the march towards real democracy"

Mohammed Osman al-Mirghani,
NDA leader

An opposition leader cautioned, however, that all issues had not been resolved and negotiators would remain in Cairo to iron out the final details of the agreement.

NDA vice-chairman General Abdel Rahman Saeed said "two problems remain on the fate of NDA forces and the power-sharing quota granted to the opposition in the interim institutions".

The first problem relates to the NDA's forces which were fighting the government and the second relates to the proportion of the Alliance in the government's institutions during the transitional period, he said.

The NDA came to Cairo hoping to have its forces assimilated in the regular army and the share of power it was granted in the January North-South agreement increased significantly from its current level of 14%.

"We have an agreement on the fact that the reconciliation agreement signed today will only be effective when a written deal is reached on both these issues," Saeed said.

Civil war

Saturday's signing ceremony comes less than six months after Khartoum signed a peace agreement with southern rebel leader John Garang, ending 21 years of civil war that killed and displaced millions.

Garang, whose Sudan People's Liberation Movement is also an NDA member, praised Egypt's role in brokering Saturday's deal and urged the Arab world to assist reconstruction efforts.

Africa's largest country has been
wracked by civil war for 21 years

All the participants also voiced their hope that the end of the 16-year feud between the NDA and al-Bashir's government would boost chances of a breakthrough in ongoing talks to solve the crisis in Darfur.

"We are very hopeful that efforts under way in Abuja will now be crowned with an agreement for the stability and security of the people in Darfur," al-Bashir said.

The main Darfur rebel group, the Sudan Liberation Army/Movement, is officially a member of the NDA but has been engaged in its own round of stop-and-start negotiations with the government in Nigeria.

The movement welcomed the Cairo agreement but warned Sudanese unity will not be achieved until the conflict in Darfur is solved.

Darfur reaction

"We welcome the signing of this agreement but we stress that there can be no global peace in Sudan unless our people in the East, in Darfur and in Kordofan obtain their fair share of the country's power and resources," SLA/M chairman Abdel Wahed Mohammed Ahmed Nur said.

The NDA was formed by 13 parties that united in 1989 to oppose the government only weeks after Beshir seized power in a military coup.

"We welcome the signing of this agreement but we stress that there can be no global peace in Sudan unless our people in the East, in Darfur and in Kordofan obtain their fair share of the country's power and resources"

Abdel Wahed Mohammed,
SLA/M chairman

Besides the SPLM, the NDA includes al-Mirghani's Democratic Unionist Party, one of Sudan's oldest political movements which draws support from the powerful Khatmiya brotherhood, as well as the Communist Party.

Saturday's agreement involves the subsequent dissolution of the NDA in its current form and will eventually bring some of its members into the interim executive.

The current parliament, dominated by al-Bashir's National Congress party, is due to be dissolved in the coming days, after it ratifies the North-South peace agreement.

While members of the future interim parliament and government will be appointed in accordance with quotas still to be finalised, the political process mapped out in January provides for free elections in three years.