Darfur talks stall amid disarray in rebel factions

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 29, 2007 

SIRTE, Libya — It took 10 months of planning, persuasion and compromise for U.N. and African diplomats to launch a new round of peace talks for Sudan's Darfur region.

But it took less than 48 hours for Darfur's political realities to crush any hopes of a speedy resolution to the four-year war in western Sudan, which has claimed more than 200,000 lives.

Boycotts by key rebel leaders, dueling agendas among those who are here and signs of stubbornness by the Sudanese government — the same problems that have sunk past diplomatic efforts — slowed the talks to a near-standstill Monday. Mediators met Sudanese envoys and rebels separately but offered no indication of when the rivals would sit down face to face.

After several rebel factions demanded more time to work out their differences, the U.N. and African Union, which are moderating the talks, said they'd send representatives to Sudan to try to convince more rebel leaders to join.

Officials who'd spoken of "a moment of truth" for Darfur reined in their rhetoric.

"No one is talking of stopping the talks," said Noureddine Mezni, an African Union spokesman. "We are entering the first phase."

It was the first time since May 2006 that diplomats had brought together Sudanese officials and Darfur rebels, who have fought government-backed militias in the arid region since 2003. Those talks ended in a truce that only one rebel faction signed, which quickly fell apart.

The mediators, who earlier said negotiations were about to begin, now spoke of a multiphase process starting with "consultations" and "workshops" that could take several weeks. The U.N. special envoy to Sudan, Jan Eliasson, said: "The real, substantial negotiations will start when the parties are prepared."

But Sudanese envoys didn't indicate much patience for that plan. "To stop negotiations for those who didn't come is a wrong signal," said Nafie Ali Nafie, the head of the Sudanese delegation.

Bringing more rebels to Libya carries its own complications. By one count, there are now 27 rebel factions, many of which deeply distrust the others.

Khalil Ibrahim and Abdalla Yahia, two leading rebels who are boycotting the talks, issued a joint statement over the weekend that described some of the factions in Libya as pretenders, "groups known to have been created by the Khartoum government." They vowed not to participate until those groups were locked out.

Even the rebel groups who traveled to Libya have divergent goals. In a speech Sunday, one rebel commander earned scattered applause when he said he didn't want Darfur to secede — a deeply sensitive issue for Khartoum, which already faces a secession referendum in southern Sudan in 2011.

Moments later, a rival leader took the lectern to argue for the opposite.

"There is no hierarchy with a disciplined person that can speak for the rebels," said Andrew Natsios, the Bush administration's special envoy to Sudan. "That means negotiations are going to be more complicated."

On a separate track, and proceeding no more smoothly, is the deployment of a larger, U.N.-led peacekeeping force that's due to take over from a badly undermanned African Union mission in January. Force planners have faced resistance from Khartoum, which doesn't want Western troops on its soil, and have obtained fewer than half the 26,000 troops needed for the mission.

Speaking generally, Natsios said, "There's not a lot of confidence right now."

The least confidence of all was expressed by the talks' host, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Having invited diplomats, delegates, Darfurians and scores of foreign journalists to Sirte, his hometown, Gadhafi, whom many rebels see as an ally of Sudanese President Omar al Bashir, pronounced the negotiations dead on arrival Saturday.

"I want to salvage the prestige of the U.N. so that it doesn't come out in utter failure," Gadhafi said during a rambling, 50-minute monologue.

Diplomats refused to react to Gadhafi's comments. But whatever his purpose in making them, several delegates said after the first day of closed-door meetings that they were prepared to remain here for weeks, probably ensuring that the name of Gadhafi's hometown will continue to stamp this peace effort, in success or failure.

"For the time being, I and the other delegates will be staying in Sirte," said Tadjadine Bechir Niam, the chief negotiator for a splinter faction of the rebel Justice and Equality Movement. "We are very keen to achieve something collectively in two to three weeks. We want to keep the momentum. The U.N. is telling us, 'Peace is a process, not an event.' "

McClatchy Newspapers 2007

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