SIRTE, Libya — A crucial round of Darfur peace talks opened Saturday with the Sudanese government announcing a ceasefire in the war-torn western region, but a leading rebel figure saying he'll believe that "when I see it."
Despite deep mistrust between rebels and the government — and the absence of some major rebel factions — both sides sounded the right notes in opening speeches in this Mediterranean city, saying they would work toward ending the four-year conflict that's left more than 200,000 people dead.
"The (Sudanese government) is coming with an open mind, and wholeheartedly, to reach peace," said Nafie Ali Nafie, Sudan's lead mediator.
"We expect that if we will sit together, we can find a solution," said Ahmed Ibrahim Diraige, chairman of a rebel grouping called the Sudan Federal Democratic Alliance, who spoke on behalf of the seven factions who've sent representatives to the talks.
Though skeptical of Sudan's pledge, Diraige said the rebels would also observe a ceasefire, but that may not bind factions that are boycotting these talks. Two key rebel leaders are missing: Abdol Wahid al-Nur, a founding father of the rebel movement who's said he won't negotiate until a U.N. peacekeeping force is deployed to stop the violence, and Khalil Ibrahim, who's believed to command the most fighters in Darfur.
Diplomats said they hoped other factions would join the talks, which could go on for days or weeks. More substantive discussions were expected to begin Monday, following another day of opening statements.
The war in Darfur began in 2003, when Sudan's Arab-led government armed militias to fight an uprising by non-Arab tribes. The negotiations are the first between Sudan and rebels since a May 2006 truce, which quickly collapsed after only one rebel faction signed on.
The talks come at an especially volatile time in Sudan — weeks after unidentified fighters killed 10 African Union peacekeepers in Darfur, and during a political dispute within Sudan's coalition government that's called into question the ruling party's commitment to peace.
"Despite these problems, the Sirte talks represent an opportunity which we cannot afford to miss," said Jan Eliasson, the U.N.'s special envoy to Sudan. "This is a moment of truth and of hope for all the people in Darfur."
Underscoring the importance the U.N. is placing on these talks, the massive conference hall here was studded with well dressed diplomats and dozens of foreign journalists. Among them sat fewer than 20 rebels, some wearing the camouflage and mesh headscarves of the battlefield, and a handful of tribal leaders swathed in white robes.
The ceremonies were marked by Libyan president Muammar Gadhafi, the host, who made a rambling speech that questioned whether the U.N. should be engaged in Darfur in the first place. A longtime critic of Western intervention in Africa, Gadhafi characterized the conflict as a relatively minor "family" squabble among Sudanese.
"The international community had better devote its time to grave problems elsewhere. To intervene in tribal problems is an exercise in futility," Gadhafi said, before welcoming the delegates to Sirte, his hometown, and wishing them luck.
� McClatchy Newspapers 2007