Envoys hopeful on a Darfur deal
Fresh from a meeting with rebel commanders in the western Sudanese bush, leaders of a new joint United Nations and African Union peace effort expressed optimism Thursday about bringing warring parties in Darfur back to the negotiating table.
In the latest diplomatic offensive to jump-start stalled peace talks, special envoys from the two organizations are wrapping up a weeklong series of meetings with Sudanese government officials, rebel fighters, civilians and tribal leaders.
“We have thus far been encouraged by the initial reaction of everyone we met,” said Salim Ahmed Salim, the AU’s envoy on the conflict in the Darfur region. He was joined on the trip by the United Nations’ special envoy to Sudan, Jan Eliasson, a former Swedish foreign minister who took over the U.N. post after his predecessor, Jan Pronk, was expelled last year by the Sudanese government.
Salim and Eliasson said they had won commitments from key players to reconvene and work toward “amending and improving” a U.S.-brokered peace accord forged in May.
“There’s a recognition that there is no military solution,” Eliasson said. “There is room for renegotiation.”
He said the government of Sudan had expressed a willingness to renegotiate some terms of the agreement, such as the amount of compensation given Darfur victims. The current agreement calls for a $30-million contribution.
More than 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million have been displaced since the conflict in Darfur began in 2003 when rebel groups in the western region attacked Sudanese government positions. The government is accused of sending Arab militias to attack civilians.
When the peace agreement was announced last year, only one of the three main rebel groups signed it. In the following months, disputes over the deal led to a further fracturing of Darfur’s rebel movement into nearly a dozen groups.
Eliasson said a reunification of those rebel groups was essential to the peace process. “The fragmentation poses a challenge to the process,” he said. Next week leaders from various rebel factions are expected to meet in Darfur in an attempt to resolve their differences and formulate some united positions.
The diplomats warned all sides to respect cease-fire agreements and refrain from violence.
In recent months, clashes between rebels and government forces in northern and western parts of Darfur have increased, leading to a resumption of aerial bombing by the Sudanese government. In December, the government bombed a rebel stronghold shortly after an AU commander met with rebels to discuss a cease-fire. On Sunday, just as the peace envoys were preparing to arrive, another government airstrike targeted western Darfur.
Sudanese government officials say they have the right to attack rebel factions that refused to sign the peace deal. But negotiators said the attacks must stop. “The government has a responsibility to exercise more restraint,” Salim said.
Humanitarian officials in the region say insecurity has worsened so much in the last six months that many aid workers are now unable to reach victims or gain access to camps for the displaced. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which oversees assistance for nearly 700,000 people in Darfur, has been cut off from nearly half of them in recent months because of the lack of security.
Some aid groups are threatening to pull out unless security is restored. A dozen aid workers in Darfur have been killed in the last six months, and several foreign aid workers were raped or otherwise sexually assaulted in December.
Also Thursday, Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir met in France with leaders from Chad and the Central African Republic to discuss ways to prevent the violence in Darfur from spreading to their nations. Oxfam International warned Thursday that eastern Chad was at risk of becoming “another Darfur.” French President Jacques Chirac urged Bashir to accept a U.N. Security Council proposal that would send 17,000 U.N. peacekeepers to Darfur.
Eliasson said the Sudanese government appeared close to giving the green light to deployment of as many as 2,000 U.N. troops, who would assist about 7,000 African Union troops already in the region.