DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — The most high-profile rebel leader in Senegal's southern Casamance region declared a ceasefire Wednesday, raising government hopes that a low-level insurgency spanning more than three decades could be nearing its end.
Salif Sadio, leader of the armed wing of the Movement of the Democratic Forces, has been fighting for Casamance's independence since the early 1980s, arguing that the region is culturally distinct from the rest of Senegal and has suffered from inattentive governments in the country's capital, Dakar.
Casamance is separated from the rest of Senegal by the nation of Gambia.
"We have decided to observe a ceasefire to give a chance to ongoing peace negotiations over Casamance," Sadio said in a statement seen by The Associated Press. Local media reports indicated Sadio had also taken to local radio stations Wednesday to announce the decision.
Though Sadio does not speak for all rebels in Casamance, he is the most powerful, and President Macky Sall's government expressed hope that all rebels would soon endorse the peace process.
"It facilitates the search for peace. A ceasefire has us going in the direction of appeasement," said government spokesman Abdou Latif Coulibaly. "This is highly appreciated by the government."
Sadio's fighters largely targeted Senegal's security forces. While the government has a policy of not providing numbers for these deaths, observers estimate that more than 100 Senegalese soldiers have died in the conflict.
The conflict also claimed civilian victims. Senegal's anti-mine agency says there have been 805 victims of landmines set by the rebels, including deaths and injuries.
The rebels have also carried out kidnappings over the years, including taking 12 employees of a South African bomb disposal firm hostage in May 2013. The victims, all Senegalese nationals, were eventually released.
In his statement, Sadio said the ceasefire came partly in response to negotiations between government and rebel representatives in Rome in February, during which the government agreed to lift an arrest warrant against him.
Sall made ending the conflict in Casamance a piece of his 2012 election platform. After he unseated incumbent Abdoulaye Wade, the U.S. State Department appointed a "Casamance Adviser" to engage in the peace process. The first person to fill that position, James R. Bullington, said in his farewell marks last September that "conditions looked favorable for success," while noting that the conflict "retards Senegal's economic development and ties down military forces for peacekeeping missions."