Sudan appeared ready today to agree to disarm Arab militias in Darfur and to accept more rebels into its security forces, key concessions that could clear the way for real progress at the Darfur peace talks.
Sudanese government spokesman Abdulrahman Zuma said his government was considering the concessions included in a revised peace agreement drafted with the help of top US and British diplomats who intervened a day earlier after rebels rejected an initial, African Union-drafted document.
“Through this so-called American initiative, it seems that the government is going to make some concessions, especially about reintegration and disarmament,” Zuma told the said.
Two Sudanese rebels close to the negotiations offered a different version, saying US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick and British Cabinet member Hilary Benn were preparing a substantially changed proposal to address their demands for greater power and wealth sharing.
Zuma said the power and wealth sharing issues already had been settled and were not open to discussion.
Earlier, Jaffer Monro, spokesman for the main Sudan Liberation Movement, had said that if the initial proposal was not significantly changed, the rebels would press for the United Nations or another body to take over the peace talks.
The African Union has overseen the talks for two years, and its mediators have often expressed frustration at the seeming unwillingness of either side to compromise or adhere to a cease-fire declared in April, 2004.
African Union spokesman Nouredine Mezni said African mediators had made “titanic efforts” to produce the draft proposal and that any changes would have to be negotiated by other parties.
The US and British officials appeared to step into that breach.
They were sent to Abuja, the Nigerian capital where the talks are taking place, after thousands of Americans including several legislators protested over the weekend to demand an end to the slaughter in Darfur.
While the rebels may embrace the US as an alternative to the African Union, the US relationship with Khartoum is complicated.
On Friday, Washington counted Sudan among six state sponsors of terror, even while it credited Khartoum with taking significant steps to cooperate in the global war on terror.
The UN Security Council a year ago authorised seizure of assets and a travel ban on individuals defying peace efforts or violating human rights law in Darfur.
Those sanctions were imposed for the first time last week against a commander of the Sudanese air force, a Janjaweed militia leader and two rebel commanders.
Stakes in the conflict have increased with oil exploration in Darfur. China, whose single largest source of foreign crude is Sudan, initially opposed and then abstained from the US-backed resolution imposing sanctions.
African Union mediators had set a Sunday deadline for the two sides to accept the original draft, but extended that twice after meeting rebel objections. The latest deadline is midnight tomorrow.
African leaders including Denis Sassou-Nguesso of the Republic of Congo and current head of the 53-nation African Union were expected in Abuja later today to add to mounting pressure for a solution to the crisis that has claimed at least 180,000 lives and forced more than 2 million people from their homes.
Decades of low-level tribal clashes over land and water in Darfur erupted into large-scale violence in early 2003 with rebels demanding regional autonomy. The central government is accused of responding by unleashing Arab militias known as Janjaweed upon civilians. Sudan denies backing the Janjaweed.
Darfur has become a staging ground for Chadian rebels, who have risen up against the government there, and Sudan accuses Chad of supporting Darfur rebels. The violence threatens to escalate since Osama bin Laden last week urged his followers to go to Sudan to fight a proposed UN force to replace ineffective African peacekeepers.
Today Zoellick met with Libyan Cabinet Minister Ali Treiki, Sudanese government negotiators and African Union mediators accompanied by European Union, Arab League and other diplomats, his spokesman Richard Mills said. H
e expected to meet some of the African leaders later in the day, Mills said.
“The parties seem to want to reach an agreement,” Mills said. “We are trying to sharpen the focus” of the draft proposal.
He would not discuss details.
Asked last night what would happen if there is no agreement by tomorrow, chief AU mediator Salim Ahmed Salim said: “There will be continued killing, continued suffering, and all the destruction that has been going on.”
US President George Bush, who has described government-backed attacks on civilian in Darfur as genocide, on Monday night called Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir about the importance of peace in Darfur.
Bush urged al-Bashir to send back his Vice President Ali Osman Mohammed Taha, who left Abuja Monday, back to the peace talks, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said.
But Taha has no plans to return, and al-Bashir would come to Abuja only to sign a final agreed peace accord, Sudanese government spokesman Zuma said.
Two main rebel groups both accuse the central government of neglecting impoverished Darfur for decades, though they also have battled each other for territory and at least one has developed its own internal factions.
The Justice and Equality Movement is closely linked to Islamic fundamentalists.