Western pressure for Darfur peace deal stepped up

The US and Britain pressed Sudan’s government and Darfur rebels to meet today’s deadline for a peace deal, even as ground units stepped up fighting that has killed at least 180,000 people and left millions more homeless.

The US and Britain pressed Sudan’s government and Darfur rebels to meet today’s deadline for a peace deal, even as ground units stepped up fighting that has killed at least 180,000 people and left millions more homeless.

Robert B. Zoellick, No 2 in the US State Department, waded into the long-stymied talks in Abuja, Nigeria, pressuring the various factions to strike a deal before a midnight (11pm Irish Time) deadline. International Development Secretary Hilary Benn joined him.

Rebels, however, stuck to their demands for concessions on security and power-sharing. The Sudanese government said it approved a draft of the peace deal first circulated last week at the African Union-hosted talks.

“We asked him (Zoellick) to put pressure on the government side so that we can have a balanced paper – and then we can sign it,” said Ahmed Hussein, a spokesman for the Justice and Equality Movement, one of the Darfur rebel factions.

“We told him that our demands are very limited. We are asking for the rights of the people of Darfur within a united Sudan,” he told reporters after meeting Zoellick.

Neither Zoellick nor Sudan government officials, who earlier took the line there was no more for them to do, were immediately available for comment.

US President George W. Bush called Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir last night about the importance of peace in Darfur, according to the official Sudan Press Agency and Frederick Jones, a spokesman for Bush’s National Security Council.

Bush has described government-backed attacks on civilians in Darfur as genocide.

During the call, Bush urged al-Bashir to send his Vice-President, Ali Osman Mohammed Taha, who left Abuja on Monday, back to the peace talks, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said.

The president told al-Bashir to accept a UN peacekeeping mission backed by NATO logistics and training for Darfur.

The African Union had originally set a Sunday deadline for the end to peace talks, but extended that by 48 hours when the rebels rejected the AU-drafted proposed peace agreement. AU officials said today there may be another two-day extension if progress warranted it.

The African Union has also selected five African heads of state to help ensure that any agreement on Darfur is accepted by all parties, said the Republic of Congo’s UN Ambassador Basile Ikouebe, whose country is the current chair of the 53-nation bloc.

Ikouebe said the leader of his nation, along with those from South Africa, Nigeria, Senegal and Egypt were scheduled to be in Abuja on Thursday to meet those taking part in the negotiations.

Even as the peace talks continued in the Nigerian capital, UN officials reported an upsurge of fighting in Darfur, where a three-year conflict has led to the deaths of at least 180,000 people and the displacement of more than two million.

Ted Chaiban, who heads Sudan operations for the UN Children’s Fund, said among the hardest-hit areas was rebel-held Gereida, near the South Darfur capital of Nyala, which UNICEF says has seen major Arab militia attacks that have forced 200,000 people from their homes in the last three months alone.

Chaiban said the various factions were likely expecting a treaty in Abuja and were jockeying to hold the most territory before a cease-fire was declared.

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