International mediators battled yesterday to save the African Union's (AU) make-or-break bid to end Darfur's bloody civil war after peace talks between government and rebels ran into another quagmire.
US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick proposed a series of modifications to the AU draft peace deal in the hope of convincing rebel leaders from the devastated western Sudanese region to sign up.
"We are trying to work out a arrangement whereby all parties will be satisfied," Zoellick's spokesman Richard Mills said.
"The AU document is good, but the [rebel] movements do not accept it and it does not make sense to be pushing the movements all the time to accept it," Mills said.
Mills said the US plan would modify the original draft to accommodate rebel demands for power and wealth sharing, disarming pro-government militias and integrating rebel troops into government security forces.
But the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) said the changes to an African Union-brokered peace plan, which the insurgents rejected on Sunday, do not go far enough.
The rebels want Darfur to become a single administrative unit, rather than remain as three states within the Sudanese federation.
"The US government's initiative is a good step forward for negotiations. We are happy about it, but it still falls short of our expectations because it has left out our crucial demand for a Darfur region," spokesman Seif Haroun said.
"The Darfur region issue is the main issue in our demand. The issue of region is not something we are going to negotiate away because that is where our key interest is," the SLA spokesman said.
Darfur, an arid rural area of western Sudan the size of France, erupted into civil war in early 2003 when the SLA and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) rebelled against the Khartoum government seeking regional autonomy.
The Janjaweed launched a counter-attack and the conflict has since cost up to 300,000 lives and made 2.4 million people homeless.
The delegates were given until midnight yesterday to strike a deal or face further international isolation and possible UN sanctions.
The Khartoum government, which had already approved the AU peace deal, said: "We expect something good will come out of this fresh initiative."
"They are trying to bridge the gaps existing between the government and the [rebel] movements, especially in the area of security arrangements as contained in the AU peace agreement," government spokesman Abdulrahman Zuma said.
AU mediators, who have struggled for a year to bring the warring parties closer together, also welcomed the intervention of Zoellick and other envoys. including Britain's International Development Secretary Hilary Benn.
"We have clearly said that we cannot renegotiate the agreement, but if the parties can agree on modifications, we'll take them into consideration," said the spokesman for the AU talks team, Nourredine Mezni.
"The ongoing consultations are aimed at bringing the positions together. If the parties agree on changes, we have no problem. It's in that spirit that Benn and Zoellick are working; they think there are changes to be made," he added.
Mezni said the Sudanese government had approved its own copy of the AU peace agreement and sent it back to mediators, but it had not been formally signed.
Last week the AU unveiled a proposed peace agreement which would see the creation of a semi-autonomous Darfur transitional authority and bring rebel fighters into government security forces and the Khartoum administration.