(GIN) – Sudan’s strained relations with the U.S., decades long, have suddenly taken a turn for the better.

In a move that caught some diplomats and human rights defenders by surprise, the U.S. State Department announced the lifting of some of its toughest economic and trade sanctions against Sudan. The initiative was reportedly hammered out in the last days of the Obama administration and is a major step towards normalizing relations with this Eastern African nation whose leader has faced war crimes charges.

Despite the policy change, Sudan remains on a black list of state sponsors of terrorism such as Syria and Iran.

“This is a paradox,” said a perplexed Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour. “We are the best country cooperating on countering terrorism and at the same time we are on the list of state sponsors of terrorism!”

Rocky relations with the U.S. date back to 1967 when Sudan threatened Israel during the Arab-Israeli six day war. Antagonism towards Israel has since cooled and diplomatic channels between the two former enemies have reportedly opened.

Military relations between the U.S. and Sudan were resumed this year along with a pledge by Sudan not to pursue an arms deal with North Korea. President Omar al-Bashir has also lent support to the U.S.-backed war in Yemen with hundreds of troops on the ground, incurring heavy losses.

The development comes as shocking news to rights groups who say that lifting sanctions would reward a government still accused of abuses.

“It’s a serious mistake for these sanctions to be lifted permanently when Sudan has made no progress on human rights,” said Andrea Prasow of Human Rights Watch.

In its objection, Amnesty International cited the use of chemical weapons by Sudanese forces against civilians, including babies and young children, in the restive Darfur region as recently as September.

Supporters of the American decision say that sanctions have done little to encourage reforms or fully resolve a conflict in the Darfur region.  “Sudan is moving towards being reintegrated into the community of acceptable nations,” said Magnus Taylor of the International Crisis Group. “They’re on this ladder, albeit a low rung, but they’re climbing.” w/pix of I. Ghandour and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan