Rebel leaders absent as peace talks open in Darfur

Negotiators moved to lower expectations ahead of the opening of the Darfur peace talks today, with almost none of the key rebel leaders present to negotiate an agreement with the Sudanese government.

Negotiators moved to lower expectations ahead of the opening of the Darfur peace talks today, with almost none of the key rebel leaders present to negotiate an agreement with the Sudanese government.

The talks in Sirte, Libya, were announced early September by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to try to end over four years of fighting that have killed more than 200,000 people in Sudan’s western region of Darfur.

With the absence of the major rebel players, however, hopes faded for Sirte to see a quick peace agreement and mediators played down the conference’s goals, insisting that focus would now be to “create conditions” for effective peace talks to take place.

They said negotiations will also give a larger role to groups representing civilians, which have had little say so far.

“We are going to try very hard to create a framework for the talks,” conference spokesman Ahmed Fauzi said, warning this would be “a long process”.

Immediately after the talks were announced, Adulwahid Elnur, the founder of the Sudan Liberation Army rebels, said he would boycott until the UN and African Union have deployed a joint force of 26,000 peacekeepers due in January.

Khalil Ibrahim, the leader of the rival Justice and Equality Movement, had initially agreed to the talks, but just on Friday announced he was also boycotting because the UN were inviting smaller, less representative rebel factions to attend.

JEM and the main SLA groups say the smaller factions attending are just stooges for the Sudanese government. The UN and African Union mediators say they tried to invite everybody so that negotiations were as inclusive as possible.

Mediators did not know by noon today how many faction leaders and delegates would attend the talks’ opening at 3pm local time (1pm Irish time). But the chief UN mediator, special envoy Jan Eliasson, said six or seven groups could be there by today. “People keep coming, there’s a slow trickle,” he said.

The talks’ first priorities are to reach an immediate cease-fire, discuss the return of Darfur refugees to their destroyed villages, and obtain financial compensations for war victims, Eliasson said.

“I hope (the government) will show a generous and positive attitude toward this,” Eliasson said.

He insisted several midlevel rebel commanders intended to join the talks within a week or so, once their groups have organised negotiation teams.

The UN was still trying to locate several commanders who want to be flown out of Sudan to join the talks in the Libyan coastal town of Sirte, said spokesman Fauzi. “We have faced important political and logistical difficulties.”

Clearly in evidence at Sirte, though, were large international delegations which came to be briefed by the UN and AU on what could be done to build a future framework for talks.

“My presence here is a sign of a more active role for the Arab League” in helping resolve Darfur’s conflict, league Secretary General Amr Moussa said before the talks.

Egypt, the regional heavyweight, has been criticised for not putting more pressure on its southern neighbour to end the violence. But Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said his government would do its best “to help with a cease-fire and to encourage those who aren’t here to attend.”

“We know the (Sudanese) government, I’ve met most of the rebels, we’re in touch with everybody,” Aboul Gheit said, voicing hope that a solid peace would eventually be achieved. “But we know it’s a hard job.”

Darfur’s ethnic African rebels took arms in 2003 against the Arab-dominated central Sudanese government, accusing it of decades of discrimination. The government is accused of retaliating with mass violence against civilians that has killed more than 200,000 and made over 2.5 million refugees, largely ethnic Africans.

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is due to officially open the talks this afternoon. His increased role in the peace efforts is viewed as a pledge by Libya to show it has ended decades of international isolation and can play its part in regional diplomacy.

But many rebels have grown sceptical of the Arab states’ involvement in the peace process, stating they are biased toward Khartoum.

Elnur, the SLA chief, said he would refuse any talks in Libya because it was involved for over a decade in fighting in Darfur and neighbouring Chad.

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