The African Union (AU) extended yesterday for another 48 hours peace talks aimed at ending a three-year-old civil war in the devastated Sudanese region of Darfur as the US kept up pressure for an agreement.
Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo "requested to further extend the deadline for ending the talks by another 48 hours ... to explore what more could be done ... to adopt and sign the agreement," chief mediator Salim Ahmed Salim said moments before a midnight deadline for the talks to end expired.
Obasanjo, Congo President and AU Chairman Denis Sassou-Nguessou, AU Commission President Alpha Oumar Konare, and other African leaders were expected to meet with delegates from Darfur's two rebel groups and Sudanese officials, said AU spokesman Nourredine Mezni.
"If there is no agreement at the end of the 48 hours then we'll have to review the situation," said Salim. "Every step has been taken in tandem with the international partners."
US envoy Robert Zoellick and British minister Hilary Benn made a last-minute bid on Tuesday to save the talks, which had already been extended from Sunday when the insurgents refused to accept the AU draft proposal to end the fighting.
"The meetings were aimed at trying to reduce the gaps that exist between the Sudanese government and the movements," said Salim.
The rebel Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) and Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) reject the draft agreement's provisions on the disarmament of the pro-government Janjaweed militia, compensation for civilians and power sharing.
They are also seeking a role for the international community in implementing the peace agreement.
Darfur, an arid rural area of western Sudan the size of France, erupted into civil war in early 2003 when the SLA and Justice and JEM rebelled against the Khartoum government to push demands for more regional autonomy.
The Janjaweed militia launched a brutal counter-attack and the conflict has since cost between 180,000 and 300,000 lives and driven more than 2.4 million people from their homes.
The Abuja peace talks have stumbled for a year but AU peacekeepers and UN aid agencies on the ground have been overwhelmed by what has been branded "the world's worst humanitarian crisis," and which Washington calls a "genocide."
US President George W. Bush also kept up pressure on Sudan, telling the country's president in "very clear" terms that his government must redouble efforts to make a deal with rebels at peace talks, the White House said on Tuesday.
In a phone call on Monday with President Omar al-Beshir, Bush urged the Sudanese leader to send his vice president back to the peace talks in Abuja, Nigeria, said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
Vice President Osman Taha abandoned the talks early, frustrated with the positions adopted by the rebels, McClellan said.
"The president is making very clear that we have some concerns and that we also want to see the government continue to work with the rebel groups and others to get a peace agreement," the spokesman said, describing Monday's dialogue between the two leaders as a "good conversation."