Darfur mediators vow to go ahead with talks

Darfur peace mediators said they will press on with negotiations due to start Saturday in Libya despite the decision by two main rebel groups to boycott the talks, saying time was running out for the war-torn Sudanese region.

Officials from the United Nations and the African Union plan to open the negotiations with a call for an immediate ceasefire commitment from all parties attending the talks.

However, Friday’s announcement by the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and SLA-Unity rebel groups that they will boycott the peace talks was a major blow to negotiations the UN hoped could reach a lasting peace agreement for Darfur.

Jan Eliasson, the UN’s special envoy to Darfur and the joint mediator for the talks, criticised the boycotting groups for not working to settle the conflict.

“I don’t see this as a failure for the negotiations, but as a failure for those who have not seized the opportunity to move toward peace,” a visibly upset Eliasson told reporters in Sirte, Libya, late on Friday.

“Anytime a significant movement figure is not present, it’s not a plus for the negotiations,” conceded Salim Ahmed Salim, the AU envoy who is also mediating the talks.

Both said negotiations would begin nonetheless and continue without interruption until an agreement is reached.

The mediators insisted delegates from several splinter factions of JEM and SLA would take part in the Sirte talks. However, it was not clear whether these delegates had a mandate from their chiefs to negotiate a new peace.

The absence of the rebellion’s two main leaders means only a few minor factions will attend the talks with the Sudanese government, which are geared at ending over four years of fighting that have killed more than 200 000 people.

Eliasson told the Associated Press that some rebel groups were still expected to arrive in Sirte before the talks opened on Saturday, and that mediators did not know exactly how many factions would be represented.

He hoped about eight—from more than a dozen splinter groups—would be present for the opening session.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced the Sirte peace talks in September, hoping to achieve a political settlement before the planned deployment to Darfur of a 26 000 strong joint AU-UN peacekeeping force in January.

But a peace deal reached without the main leaders would have little backing on the ground and could face the same shortcomings as the 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement, which was signed by the government and one rebel group in Abuja, Nigeria, but failed to stop the fighting.

“The situation now is worse than Abuja,” said a senior mediator who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.

Salem, the AU mediator, hoped the talks would at least help stop the increasing violence in Darfur and “create the conditions” for a future peace.

Threatening to expand violence

JEM, one of the main fighting factions, has said it would only cease combat if the government does. JEM’s leader, Khalil Ibrahim, had initially agreed to the peace talks.
But the movement said on Friday it would not attend because the UN and AU had disregarded their demand that minor factions not be allowed around the negotiation table.

“The mediators adopted the policy of bringing every single individual and group, and all these groups and individuals were created by the Sudanese government,” claimed Ahmed Tugod Lissan, JEM’s chief negotiator.

The UN and AU rejected this criticism, stating on Friday they had tried to make the new peace talks as inclusive as possible by inviting all factions.

While JEM represents the most potent rebel force, the founder of the Sudan Liberation Army, Abdulwahid Elnur, is also boycotting the talks.

Elnur has little control over the multiple SLA rebel factions, but has a large following among civilians, especially the region’s 2,5-million refugees.

“Whatever happens in Sirte without JEM and SLA-Nur does not represent Darfur’s people,” said Abdelaziz Ushar, one of JEM’s main military commanders.

JEM is threatening to expand the violence into vital Sudanese oil areas near Darfur. Earlier this week, it attacked an oil field and kidnapped two workers, demanding that all foreign oil companies leave within a week because the crude sales benefit the Sudanese government.

Ushar said by satellite phone from Darfur that the two workers were an Iraqi and an Egyptian national and were in good health.

Among other boycotting groups, SLA-Unity is suspected of involvement in the killing of 10 AU peacekeepers in Darfur last month, the worst attack against the AU since the 7 000-strong force deployed to the area. However, other rebel factions are also suspected, and each group claims the attack on the AU was conducted by others.

JEM and SLA-Unity called on the UN and AU on Friday to come to Darfur to discuss a new format and timing for peace negotiations, according to Lissan, JEM’s chief negotiator.—Sapa-AP

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