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Rebels Agree To Peace Talks.

After an unprecedented meeting of rebel groups from Darfur, leaders representing more than a dozen militias agreed on a "common platform" for negotiations with the Khartoum government. The four-day talks held in Arusha, Tanzania, ended on Aug. 6 with many observers, including the EU, hailing the conference as the start of a peace process. Still, the absence of several prominent leaders concerned participants and observers.

The rebel leaders present at the Arusha meeting agreed on a plan to share power and wealth, create security arrangements, deal with land and humanitarian issues, and handle the "final negotiations". The details of the common peace terms were on Aug. 7 presented to Khartoum in a confidential document. Special UN envoy to Darfur Jan Eliasson said the agreement was an important step forward. He said: "One of the main problems we have had to reach negotiations has been the split and the splintering among the rebel movement". Later Eliasson began talks in Khartoum.

Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief, described the conference as "very encouraging". Urging rebel groups and Khartoum to live up to their commitments, he vowed that the EU would continue its support of the peace process. Solana also said the EU must "demonstrate genuine dedication to put an end to this crisis", adding: "The prospect of peace in Darfur has moved a significant step closer. The common position among essential non-signatory movements is an achievement, which holds the promise of peace negotiations in the coming months". Rebels say they will be ready to meet with the Khartoum government to hold peace talks within the next two to three months.

Representatives from Chad, Egypt, Eritrea, and Libya attended the conference to monitor the progress towards final negotiations. Though not all groups invited actually attended the event, those present agreed to allow those who did not participate to join their common platform.

According to the statement of conclusions issued by UN and AU Special Envoys Eliasson and Salim Ahmad Salim, the talks were supposed to "create an enabling environment for the non-signatories [to the 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement] to meet and consult among themselves, with other participants and the Special Envoys in order to facilitate the preparations for the negotiations".

Before the Arusha conference began, there was speculation about those not planning to attend, notably Abdul Wahed al-Nur, a founder of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA). A fiercely popular figure since the insurgency began in 2003, Nur has retained his appeal even though he has spent little time in Darfur, preferring to live in Paris since the conflict began. Many worry that peace talks will suffer without Nur. UN and Western diplomats believe it is impossible to sell an agreement to Darfur's displaced which Nur has not backed. But AU envoy Salim said: "This process will not be held hostage by anyone, because what is at stake is the future of the people of Darfur".

Ahmad Hussein Adam, a spokesman for the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), one of the main groups, said the rebels were willing to work together, stressing: "We want to seize this opportunity. This can be the first step towards a meaningful, constructive and comprehensive political process".

In an interview with The Sudan Tribune, Nur said he was not avoiding the peace process and that the SLA was "always seeking a peaceful political settlement". However, he said he would only support a "durable" peace agreement which ensured the safety and protection of "[his] people". Nur said his vision to end the Darfur could be achieved through three steps:

1 - Conflict Suspension, which means to stop the violence in Darfur;

2 - Conflict Resolution, which leads to negotiations; and

3 - Conflict Transformations through peace implementation and sustainable development.

Another prominent SLA member Suleiman Jamous was also missing from the Arusha talks. Jamous, the respected relief co-ordinator for the SLA, has been in the custody of the Khartoum government for nearly a year while he awaits medical treatment. Rebel groups and human rights activists have called for his release, but he remains in captivity. In their statement, the special UN and EU envoys "recalled that they had taken up this issue on several occasions with the government of the Sudan" and vowed to "pursue the matter in view of the [moderate] role Mr. Jamous can play in the political process".

Sudan's Foreign Ministry on Aug. 7 said it was ready to respond to parts of the platform. After a meeting between UN envoy Eliasson and senior Foreign Ministry official Mutrif Siddig, the Ministry's spokesman Ali al-Sadeq said: "Sudan is ready to respond to some of the contents of the [Arusha] statement, particularly the points regarding the cessation of hostilities when others also do respect it".

Khartoum said the door would remain open for those who did not take part in the Arusha talks to join in another round of negotiations. The date and venue for the next negotiations would be decided within the coming two or three months.

Eliasson told reporters after Aug. 7 meetings that the government had made it clear it would not allow "a renegotiation of the [2006] Darfur Peace Agreement" and stressed that all parties should join to end the conflict. The Darfur Peace Agreement was signed between the government and one rebel faction. But the violence in Darfur has largely continued since then and the rebel groups have broken up into several smaller factions.

Also on Aug. 7, Siddig said Jamous would be allowed to leave Sudan if he renounced violence. Jamous needs to leave the country for further medical care, international celebrities and activists have said in letters to Sudan's president. Jamous, in his mid-60s, was seized last year in northern Darfur by troops loyal to a rival rebel leader. He suffers from abdominal problems and has been at a UN hospital outside Darfur. The UN has said he is free to leave, but he fears arrest or government reprisals if he does. Siddiq said: "If there are guarantees that he will take part in the peace process and will not carry arms or incite in carrying arms, then we will allow the United Nations to take him out of Kadugli to the negotiating halls".

Eliasson and the AU chief negotiator Salim scheduled the talks in Arusha to help unify the rebels and set a date and place for direct peace negotiations with the Sudanese government. Salim said the presence of some rebel commanders helped to bridge a political-military divide in the movement, noting: "There was more consultation among themselves than with us". He added that the rebels decided to keep the door open for those who were invited but did not participate to join a common platform.

Khartoum accused France of having failed to encourage Nur to attend. Nur's SLA has only a few troops. But Nur commands significant support among Darfuris who have been forced into refugee camps.

Khalil Abdullah, from the United Front for Liberation and Development, urged foreign powers to pressure Khartoum to negotiate seriously, saying: "This regime is used to going back on agreements and not implementing deals. The international community has to be serious and put real pressure on the government". Eliasson said the rebels agreed to guarantee access for aid agencies, refrain from attacking AU peacekeepers and co-operate with a planned 26,000-strong AU-UN force recently approved by the UNSC.
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Publication:APS Diplomat News Service
Date:Aug 13, 2007
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