Sunday, September 9, 2007

Sudan Agrees to Darfur Peace Talks

September 7, 2007
Sudan Agrees to Darfur Peace Talks

KHARTOUM, Sudan, Sept. 6 — The United Nations and Sudan announced Thursday that rebel leaders from Darfur would hold peace negotiations with the government next month to seek an end to a conflict that many in the world contend constitutes genocide.

The talks, under the auspices of the United Nations and the African Union, will begin on Oct. 27 in Tripoli, the capital of Libya.

In a joint statement, the government of Sudan pledged “to contribute positively to secure the environment for the negotiations, fulfilling its commitment to a full cessation of hostilities in Darfur and agreed upon cease-fire.”

Sudan also promised to “facilitate the timely deployment” of the new 26,000-member African Union United Nations peacekeeping force, which it had long resisted but then agreed to this summer under intense international pressure.

The announcement came on the fourth day of an African trip devoted to Darfur by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who declared on taking office in January that ending the killing and pillaging in the war- ravaged area of western Sudan state was his top international priority.

“We have taken a big step toward our shared goal of bringing peace to Darfur and long term development in Sudan,” Mr. Ban said.

Rebel groups and the government have held peace talks before, and a peace agreement was reached with one faction last year. But that has hardly stopped the violence in Darfur, where there are many armed factions of rebels, Arab militias and bandits.

Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the president of Sudan, joined him on stage at the outset of the announcement ceremony in Friendship Hall but then left with no comment before Mr. Ban and Lama Akol, the Sudanese foreign minister, formally presented the agreement.

An announcer said that Mr. Bashir’s departure was prearranged so he could go greet an unnamed visiting president

Mr. Ban has been pressing for wide ranging political talks to precede the arrival of the new peacekeeping troops, arguing that “there must be a peace to keep.”. Officials said he had been on the phone with political figures and leaders of neighboring countries in recent days during trips to Juba in southern Sudan and El Fasher in North Darfur.

They said the suggestion of Libya as a venue for the talks came from Mr. Bashir, the Sudanese president, in a private dinner with Mr. Ban Monday night at the presidential guest house in Khartoum.

“We were thrown by the choice at first,” said a United Nations official who said he was not authorized to discuss internal decision-making by name. “But the more we thought about it, the more it made sense as a way to convince the Africans that they would maintain possession of the process.”

He added that Sudan was concerned about rebel arms coming across the Libyan border and saw involving Tripoli as a way of getting it to curb the flow.

Mr. Ban leaves Friday for Chad and is scheduled to see Libya’s leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, on Saturday in Tripoli.

Mr. Ban said the talks would be supervised by Jan Eliasson, his special representative for Darfur, and Salim A. Salim, the Darfur envoy of the African Union.

The two men have been traveling extensively in the region in recent weeks, trying to bring the fragmented Sudanese rebel movement together so that the groups could take advantage of what the United Nations believes is a new willingness in Khartoum to talk.

A key test of Thursday’s joint proposal will be how many people from the rebel side show up, but Mr. Eliasson said the time was right for taking the initiative.

“The common denominator was that all sides have realized now that there is no military solution,” he said.

Mr. Eliasson noted that Libya had helped in two meetings, in April and July, to convince reluctant rebel leaders, some of whom are based in Tripoli, of the need to seek a political solution. Libya also had the advantages of being close to Sudan, thereby cutting travel costs and assuring a better turnout, he said.

The bloodletting in Darfur began four years ago when ethnic African fighters took up arms against the Arab-dominated central government, accusing Khartoum of hoarding resources and neglecting their area. Khartoum retaliated by unleashing militias in an ethnic cleansing campaign that has ended up costing more than 200,000 lives and leaving 2.5 million villagers homeless.

Washington has called the scorched earth policy genocide. Sudan has denied the accusations and puts the death toll at 9,000.

Mr. Ban said his visit to Darfur Wednesday had “made my resolve stronger and firmer to work for peace and security.”

“I was so shocked and humbled when I visited the I.D.P. camp,” he said. The United Nations calls refugees in their own country internally displaced people.

Several Sudanese questioners Thursday challenged Mr. Ban’s motives in coming here and asked whether he wasn’t taking sides against the government. “The United Nations is not interested in interfering in any way in any internal matters in Sudan,” he said.

Mr. Ban also said that among the invited would be Abdel Wahid al-Nur, an influential rebel leader who is now based in exile in Paris and refused to attend a meeting run by Mr. Eliasson and Mr. Salim last month in Arusha, Tanzania where seven other major rebel figures drew up a framework for sharing power and wealth in any ultimate settlement with the government.

Mr. Akol, the foreign minister, was asked if he wanted to see Mr. al-Nur, a government opponent with a wide following, at the talks. “Great leaders in history are the ones who know when to take the right decision at the right time,” he said.

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