Sun, Aug 05, 2007 - Page 1 News List

Darfur's factions sit down to talks

`FEELING OF HOPE' The negotiations with a UN mediator bring together 16 military commanders to pave the way for a deal with the Khartoum regime

AFP , ARUSHA, TANZANIA

Darfur's fractious rebel groups started key talks on Friday to hammer out a united front paving the way for negotiations with the Khartoum government and an end to the deadly civil conflict.

"For the first time in a long time, I have a feeling of hope for Darfur, a sense of opportunity not to be lost," top UN mediator Jan Eliasson said in his opening remarks.

Asked when final settlement talks could take place, Eliasson's African Union (AU) counterpart Salim Ahmed Salim said: "Within the next two months."

When the deadly conflict erupted in Darfur four-and-a-half years ago, the uprising against the central authority in Khartoum was spearheaded by one group that was protesting the government's "policies of maginalization, racial discrimination, exclusion, exploitation and divisiveness."

Now diplomats face the daunting task of finding common ground for a dozen rebel factions.

"Our objective is to find a common position. You cannot have negotiations with on the one hand, the Khartoum government, and seven, eight or nine rebel groups on the other," Salim said.

At least 16 military commanders were expected to take part in the talks.

Eliasson said it was crucial to rapidly capitalize on Tuesday's Security Council decision to deploy 26,000 peacekeepers in Darfur to boost the political process.

"I fear a very dangerous situation in the camps" of displaced people if there is no rapid progress on the political front, he said.

"It will take some time before all the peacekeepers are deployed. The political process is now at a crucial stage," he said.

After a day of preliminary meetings, the talks kicked off in earnest late on Friday, but without the Sudan Liberation Movement of Abdel Wahid Mohammed Nur, the founding father of the rebellion and a member of Darfur's largest tribe.

"We regret that Abdel Wahid Nur is not here. We hope that with this decision, he is not excluding himself from the final negotiations we are planning," Eliasson said.

Nur's faction contests the legitimacy of the many splinter rebel groups and also argues crunch talks with the government should only be considered once the new "hybrid force" of UN and AU peacekeepers is deployed.

"The more you recognize individuals as faction leaders by inviting them to talks like those in Arusha, the more factions there will be, and consequently disorder on the ground," his spokesman Yahia Bolad said.

Eliasson nevertheless described the Arusha meeting as "highly representative and the widest group of rebels ever assembled."

A Darfur peace deal was reached with the Sudanese government in Abuja in May last year but it was only endorsed by one of three negotiating rebel groups. The signatory was Minni Minawi, a military commander who broke away from Nur's group and is now the fourth-ranking official in the Sudanese state.

According to a recent report on the Darfur rebels, the need is not so much for an effort to revive the Abuja peace deal but for a new and inclusive process.

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