Sudan rebel chief threatens to boycott peace talks

A key Darfur rebel leader warned on Saturday his movement will not attend peace talks this month in Libya unless the United Nations and the African Union can convince a rival group to unite its splinter factions.

Khalil Ibrahim, leader of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), had said he would attend talks set to begin October 27 in Tripoli, Libya, to end four years of bloodshed between rebels and the Sudanese government.

But Ibrahim said he would stay away from the talks unless the rival Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) united its multiple factions ahead of the talks.

“There must be only three sides in Tripoli: JEM, SLA, and the [Sudanese] government,” Ibrahim told the Associated Press by satellite phone from Darfur.

JEM’s participation is considered crucial to the success of the Tripoli talks because of the movement’s military power. UN mediators did not return calls for comment late on Saturday, the end of the weekend in Sudan.

Ibrahim said UN and AU mediators were lagging behind schedule in organising the talks and determining what groups should attend. Ibrahim said is movement would not negotiate with multiple factions that have limited support.

“If the mediation fails to decide this very precisely, JEM will not come to Tripoli,” Ibrahim said.
Instead, Ibrahim said his movement would negotiate its own agreement with the government without UN and African mediation.

A Darfur peace agreement reached in May 2006 failed to bring peace, in large part because only one rebel chief, Minni Minawi, accepted it.

Minawi heads the main SLA faction but has lost much of his following since he signed the deal and became a high-ranking government official.

JEM claims to have thousands of troops in Darfur, but independent observers believe the number of regular, trained fighters is far fewer.

The nearly a dozen SLA splinter groups collectively number more fighters.

But JEM has spearheaded rebel coalitions that have repeatedly defeated the Sudanese army in combat. In recent weeks, the movement claimed to have downed several government planes and helicopter gunships, and killed dozens of troops, countering a government offensive in eastern Darfur.

Observers in the area have largely confirmed these claims.

A second key Darfur rebel chief, Abdul Wahid Elnur, has also refused to attend the Tripoli talks.

Elnur says he will only negotiate once a planned force of 26 000 UN and AU peacekeepers arrives in Darfur to protect ethnic African civilians from the government’s Arab-dominated forces.

The current AU force of 7 000 peacekeepers has been unable to end the violence and has itself become a target. Ten peacekeepers were killed in a suspected rebel attack on the base of Haskanita recently.

Rebel leaders blame each other, or rogue elements, for the attack, and say the African peacekeepers favour the government.

Elnur founded the SLA but is believed to have lost much control over the armed factions. Peace mediators say they will open the new talks without him.

But Elnur’s role remains crucial, because he is believed to have the largest civilian following in Darfur. His tribe, the Fur, is the largest in the region to which it gave its name.

Several observers, including former US President Jimmy Carter and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, have warned the Tripoli talks must represent Darfur civilians, not than just armed factions.

Ibrahim said he agreed that civilians must be represented, adding that his movement was organising its own conference ahead of Tripoli to assemble delegations of refugees, women and various other groups.

Fighting in Darfur is believed to have cost over 200 000 lives and made 2,5-million people refugees.—Sapa-AP

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