Sudan's president offers cease-fire when talks begin

In a rare, high-profile visit to the West, Sudan’s president today met with the pope and Italy’s premier, and offered to declare a cease-fire with Darfur rebels to coincide with the start of UN-backed peace talks next month.

In a rare, high-profile visit to the West, Sudan’s president today met with the pope and Italy’s premier, and offered to declare a cease-fire with Darfur rebels to coincide with the start of UN-backed peace talks next month.

Past truces have been regularly violated.

Still, after a meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and President Omar al-Bashir, the Vatican expressed hope that the Libya talks would succeed and put an end to the suffering in Darfur, where more than 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million have been uprooted in the four years since ethnic African rebels tour took up arms against the Arab-dominated Sudanese government.

Sudan’s government is accused of retaliating by unleashing a militia of Arab nomads known as the janjaweed, a charge it denies.

Al-Bashir told reporters after meeting Italian Premier Romano Prodi that he was offering a cease-fire linked to the start of negotiations on October 27, in Tripoli, Libya, to “create a positive climate.”

“We hope that the negotiations in Tripoli will be the last ones and that they will bring definitive peace,” al-Bashir said.

A top rebel leader, Abdulwahid Elnur, of the Sudan Liberation Movement, has said negotiations should not start before a cease-fire and before the arrival of a UN-African Union peacekeeping force. UN officials have said troops could start deploying in October.

In a telephone call from Paris today, Elnur again rejected the Libya talks, expressing scepticism about al-Bashir’s truce offer.

“How many cease-fires is al-Bashir going to offer?” Elnur said, listing nearly a dozen he said Sudan’s forces violated. However, observers say some were also breached by Darfur rebels.

“No one on earth will make me go” to Libya, Elnur said, saying his movement wanted to see the UN deployed in Darfur and the janjaweed disarmed before agreeing to negotiations.

Al-Bashir’s announcement came after his forces launched a major attack earlier this week against another rebel faction, the Justice and Equality Movement, in northern Darfur. JEM leader Khalil Ibrahim, who had earlier said he would go to Libya, now says he might not if government attacks continued.

JEM’s chief political negotiator, Abdullahi Eltom, dismissed al-Bashir cease-fire offer today, saying the president’s “word is worth nothing.”

However, Eltom said in a telephone interview that his movement was willing to abide by a general cease-fire ahead of the Libya talks if a framework agreement is first agreed upon. Diplomats say a framework will be discussed at a meeting of rebel groups expected to precede the Libya talks.

In Italy, al-Bashir said he had asked Prodi to encourage European countries hosting rebel leaders to pressure them to take part in the talks, citing the Paris-based Elnur.

Prodi welcomed al-Bashir’s offer of a cease-fire as an “important signal.”

While the pope in the past has denounced the humanitarian disaster in Darfur as “horror,” the Vatican chose an upbeat tone to describe Benedict’s 25-minute talks with the Sudanese president in the papal summer palace in Castel Gandolfo outside Rome.

Discussions were particularly focused on Darfur, the Vatican said. “Very positive views were expressed concerning fresh peace negotiations,” it said.

“It is the Holy See’s heartfelt hope that these negotiations prove successful in order to put an end to the suffering and insecurity of these peoples, ensuring them the humanitarian assistance to which they have the right, and initiating development projects,” the Vatican statement said.

When Benedict met Muslim diplomats a year ago in an effort to defuse anger over his remarks about Islam and violence, Sudan was the only predominantly Muslim nation with diplomatic relations with the Holy See that did not attend.

The importance of dialogue and collaboration between believers, particularly Christians and Muslims, was discussed, the Vatican said, offering no particulars.

The human rights group Amnesty International had expressed concern about what the visit by al-Bashir, who came to power in 1989 in a military and Islamic coup, would achieve and why Italy would agreed to welcome him.

Last month, a UN report accused the Sudanese government of failing to investigate rapes allegedly carried out by Sudanese forces and militiamen, an accusation Sudan’s justice minister has called untrue.

Yesterday, a separate UN report said children in Sudan are still being recruited to fight and suffer abuses, including rape and abduction.

Prodi called al-Bashir’s visit a “useful” way to press Sudan to make good on its pledges about Darfur.

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