updated 6/30/2005 8:20:35 PM ET 2005-07-01T00:20:35

Sudan announced the imminent end of a state of emergency across most of the giant country and began releasing political prisoners on Thursday, including the leading Islamic opposition figure.

Sudan has been under a state of emergency for 16 years — ever since President Omar el-Bashir seized power in the largest country in Africa — and Thursday’s developments are expected to help prepare for a handover to a transitional government with former rebels.

The emergency will not be lifted in Darfur, the western region where a rebellion and counterinsurgency have created one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, and the eastern Red Sea and Kassala states, where there have been occasional anti-government violence and protests.

The most prominent prisoner released was Hassan Turabi, an Islamic ideologue who was once the strongman of el-Bashir’s regime until the president accused him of power grabbing and dismissed him.

Turabi immediately plunged back into politics with a news conference at his Popular Congress party headquarters, criticizing the government for planning to adopt a new constitution via a parliamentary committee and a vote instead through a national referendum.

“No constitution is to be passed by a committee,” Turabi complained. “It is the people who should have done it.”

In a national broadcast Thursday, el-Bashir said the emergency would be lifted when the new constitution is adopted and a transitional government is installed in accordance with the January peace treaty that ended the 21-year civil war in southern Sudan.

“God willing, on the 9th of July, we will sign the interim period constitution,” el-Bashir said. On July 9, the leader of the former rebellion in southern Sudan, John Garang, is due to become vice president in a transitional government that will prepare the way for elections and a referendum for southerners on whether to secede.

The civil war pitted the Arab Muslim-dominated government in Khartoum against rebels fighting for greater autonomy and a larger share of the country’s wealth in the largely African animist and Christian south.

More than 2 million people died, mainly from war-induced famine and disease, and at least twice as many fled their homes.

Southern Sudan’s conflict was separate from one in the country’s western Darfur region, where rebels from African tribes took up arms in February 2003, complaining of discrimination and oppression by the Arab-dominated government. The government is accused of responding by backing a scorched-earth counterinsurgency by Arab militias, known as the Janjaweed.

War-induced hunger and disease have killed more than 180,000 people and driven more than 2 million from their homes in Darfur, according to U.N. estimates.

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