Darfur peace agreement stalls as US congressmen arrested

A Sudanese Darfur rebel faction has demanded that the African Union (AU) extend its deadline for the concluding peace talks, as Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo pressured the warring sides to sign a proposed deal.

A Sudanese Darfur rebel faction has demanded that the African Union (AU) extend its deadline for the concluding peace talks, as Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo pressured the warring sides to sign a proposed deal.

The AU has been brokering talks for nearly two years aimed at ending fighting in Darfur that has left about 180,000 dead and forced millions from their homes. AU mediators distributed a draft peace agreement this week ahead of a deadline tomorrow for the talks to end.

The Sudan Liberation Movement, one of two rebel groups battling in Darfur since 2003, said on Friday that it needed more time to consider the document and that it had asked for a deadline extension from Obasanjo, who is hosting the talks.

“We requested of the president that by April 30 it is not possible for us to conclude on our position. I will not be able to say how long because it is a technical issue,” said Waheed Al-Nur, one of the group’s leaders. Obasanjo wasn’t available for comment.

The other rebel group, Justice and Equality Movement, said it had only received a copy of the deal written in English – a language it said 70% of its delegates can’t read – and that it was waiting for the document in Arabic.

Nevertheless, that insurgent group said it was willing to work toward a deal before tomorrow, echoing public optimism on the part of the Sudanese government delegation.

Obasanjo personally met with the heads of each delegation and rebels said he leaned on the groups to sign the deal.

“We met President Obasanjo. He was urging the parties to put initials on the documents,” said Ahmed Tugod, a leader of the smaller and newer JEM faction.

As of Wednesday, when an initial draft of the agreement was first circulated, the proposed agreement addressed complaints from Darfur rebel groups that they had been neglected by the national government. It called for the president to include a Darfur expert, initially nominated by the rebels, among his top advisers.

Meanwhile, five members of the US Congress were jailed for protesting outside the Sudanese Embassy in Washington over atrocities in Darfur.

“The slaughter of the people of Darfur must end,” Democrat Tom Lantos of California, a Holocaust survivor who founded the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, said from the embassy steps before his arrest.

Four other Democratic House members – James McGovern and John Olver of Massachusetts, Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas and Jim Moran of Virginia – were among 11 protesters arrested on charges of disorderly conduct and unlawful assembly.

The five were released after paying €40 fines. During the protest, the five were willingly arrested and led away from the embassy front steps in plastic handcuffs.

At the White House, President George Bush met with Darfur advocates on Friday and lent his support to rallies planned in more than a dozen cities around the country this weekend to protest the violence in the arid western part of Sudan.

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