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Darfur talks in crisis as rebels refuse deal

Despite international pressures, rebel groups rejected a proposed deal with the Khartoum Govt to end their war.

india Updated: May 05, 2006 16:16 IST

The African Union's year-old drive to bring peace to the devastated Sudanese region of Darfur was in crisis once again on Friday, after rebel fighters refused to sign a peace accord.

Despite massive pressure from international mediators, both insurgent groups at peace talks in Abuja defied the third in a series of 48-hour deadlines and rejected a proposed deal with the Khartoum government to end their war.

The chief AU mediator at the talks, Salim Ahmed Salim, said more meetings would resume at 9.00 am after a stormy overnight session, but sounded far from optimistic about how the negotiations could proceed.

"It was rough and tough. I'm not encouraged. I think we've reached a point of reality," he told reporters at Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo's official residence in Abuja, the current venue of the peace talks.

"We've one consideration in mind, that is the plight of the people of Darfur. It will be a bad day for the people of Darfur if, after all the efforts made and days spent, the (rebel) movements are still wanting," he warned.

Darfur, an arid desert region of western Sudan the size of France or Texas, erupted into civil war in early 2003 when armed local movements rebelled to demand more autonomy from the Arab-led government in Khartoum.

In response, the regime unleashed the Janjaweed militia, which launched brutal attacks against Darfur's largely black African population. The war has caused at least 180,000 deaths and left 2.4 million people homeless.

This week senior international envoys, including US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, came to Abuja to strong arm the warring parties into a peace deal which would allow humanitarian aid to flow and elections to be held.

The Western diplomats fine-tuned the draft accord, pushing the government to offer better guarantees on the disarmament of the Janjaweed and on recruiting former rebels into the national armed force.

Following this intervention, Obasanjo and the current AU chairman President Denis Sassou-Nguesso of Congo personally hosted Thursday's overnight session in a bid to persuade the parties to accept a deal.

But Mohammed Tugod of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) said the draft peace accord failed to answer his group's demands for Darfur's three states to be united into a single autonomous region.

"We clearly explained the reasons why this document failed to take into consideration the opinions of the movement and why the African Union mediation failed also to come out with a reasonable document," he said.

"We came to the conclusion that it's extremely difficult for us to accept this kind of document unless fundamental changes have been made ... therefore we decided not to sign it," he told reporters in Abuja.

Abdelwahid Al-Nur, one of the leaders of Darfur's other rebel movement the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA), said simply: "We need the document to be improved upon. We are not going to sign it."

Zoellick was clearly angered by the insurgents' intransigence.

"We've made the parties realise that their people are dying. They need to think over this. It's time for the leadership of the (rebel) movements to step forward and to help their people," he told reporters.

"These are great opportunities which good leadership must take, but this leadership in the movements is in question," he said.

Tugod said a peace deal should include a larger provision to bring leaders from Darfur into the Sudanese federal presidency.

As drawn up by the AU, the proposed peace plan would call for a referendum in Darfur to decide whether to create a single administrative region, but only after fighting has halted and national elections have been held.

First Published: May 05, 2006 12:26 IST