US, UK press rebels to accept Darfur peace deal

The United States and other international mediators battled on Thursday to strong-arm Darfur’s rebel leaders into accepting a peace deal to end three years of slaughter in their devastated region in western Sudan.

US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick and British International Development Secretary Hilary Benn added their weight to African Union peace talks after the warring parties failed to meet a deadline for an accord.

The Khartoum government has signalled it supports the proposed text. But Darfur’s two rebel movements are holding out for more guarantees on regional autonomy and jobs in the national army, at the risk of provoking international disapproval.

“Consultations are continuing this morning [Thursday] on how to close the gap between the Khartoum government and the movements,” said Zoellick’s spokesperson Richard Mills as talks resumed. Mediation efforts had continued late into the night on Wednesday.

“We are working closely with the AU mediators.
They have done an excellent job by putting down a good text which is the basis for negotiation.

“We are working with the other international partners, including the British government,” he added.

Asked whether he was optimistic that a deal would be reached by midnight, the latest deadline, he said: “We are persistent.”

A senior member of the AU mediation team, Chris Garuba, said: “We are hopeful and expectant that the deal will be signed today [Thursday].”

Darfur, an arid desert region as large as France, erupted into civil war in early 2003 when the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) started fighting the Khartoum government for autonomy for their region.

The pro-government Janjaweed militia launched a brutal counter-attack. The conflict has since cost between 180 000 and 300 000 lives and driven more than 2,4-million people from their homes.

United Nations aid agencies say the fighting has caused the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis” and Washington has accused the Sudanese government of genocide.

For the past year, AU diplomats have been trying to cajole a peace deal from the warring parties at talks in Abuja, Nigeria. On Sunday they issued a draft peace plan and an ultimatum: sign by midnight or face isolation.

The rebels held out and a second deadline was missed on Tuesday.

Now Zoellick’s team has modified the AU document in the hope of getting a deal.

But SLA spokesperson Seif Haroun said the changes had not gone far enough and the rebels would insist that Darfur—currently spanning three states within the Sudanese federation—became a single autonomous region.

“The US government’s initiative is a good step forward for negotiations. We are happy about it but it still falls short of our expectations because it has left out our crucial demand for a Darfur region,” Haroun said.

“The Darfur region issue is the main issue in our demand. The issue of region is not something we are going to negotiate away because that is where our key interest is,” the SLA spokesperson said.

For their part the government, which was already happy with the AU offer, has expressed hope that the US deal would be acceptable. It has reportedly given some ground, namely agreeing to recruit more rebel fighters into the national security forces.

On Wednesday, government spokesperson Abdulrahman Zuma told Agence France-Presse: “We expect something good will come out of this fresh initiative.”

Nevertheless, Zoellick met late into Wednesday night with government delegates. He and other mediators were in intense meetings again on Thursday morning, with 14 hours left to go before the latest deadline expired.

AU spokesperson Noureddine Mezni said that African leaders including the AU chairperson, President Denis Sassou-Nguesso of Congo, would discuss Darfur on the margins of a summit on Aids and health care in Abuja this week.

“Meanwhile intense consultations are continuing,” he added.

“We in the mediation team are working closely with the international partners with a view to bringing peace to Darfur. We have no objection if the parties agree to amend our peace agreement document,” he said.—Sapa-AFP

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