NAIROBI, Kenya—U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick rushed to Nigeria on Monday, hoping to break a crucial impasse in peace talks over Sudan's Darfur region.
Zoellick's unexpected trip came a day after thousands rallied in Washington urging the Bush administration to do more to end the war in Darfur, and amid fading hopes that rebels would sign a peace plan backed by the Sudanese government before a deadline Tuesday night.
The rebels held fast Monday to their demands for greater political representation and security guarantees as State Department spokesman Sean McCormack renewed calls for a diplomatic solution to the three-year conflict that's killed more than 200,000 people.
"The United States urges the Darfur rebel movements to focus on the few key issues that stand in the way of reaching a settlement," McCormack said in Washington. "All parties should make a concentrated effort to seize this opportunity for peace."
The long-running peace talks in Abuja, Nigeria, saw a glimmer of hope Sunday when Sudan said it would support a plan drafted by the African Union, an intergovernmental body that's the African equivalent of the United Nations. It was the first time in eight rounds of torturous negotiations that either side had backed a comprehensive peace proposal.
But representatives of Darfur's rebel groups—who took up arms against the Sudanese government in 2003 to protest being politically marginalized—rejected the document. U.S. envoys got the African Union to extend negotiations by 48 hours, to 7 p.m. EDT Tuesday, hoping for a compromise.
But early Monday, the leader of Sudan's delegation, Vice President Ali Osman Taha, left the negotiations to return to Sudan. It wasn't clear whether he would return, and some analysts suggested that his departure—despite overtures from the rebels that he stay and discuss their differences—meant that the Sudanese government thought it had won the diplomatic high ground and wouldn't cede much to the rebels.
"Taha left because the government is not willing to negotiate further on the current proposal," said John Prendergast, senior adviser to the International Crisis Group, a research agency based in Brussels, Belgium.
"The talks are set up now to ensure that if the rebels don't sign they will be viewed as the bad guys."
It was unclear whether there'd be further negotiations if the talks fail. The Bush administration has said repeatedly that the talks offered the best chance for peace.
The negotiations, which have gone on for two years, have been complicated by divisions among the rebels, now split into three factions. But rebel leaders said they had a unified position and wouldn't bow to international demands that a deal be reached.
"There is a lot of pressure upon us, but we are not going to let down our people and sign any weak agreement," said Badiker Mohamed Abdallah, a spokesman for one faction of the divided Sudan Liberation Movement.
The diplomatic maneuvering comes as conditions worsen in Darfur, a dry and desolate region roughly the size of Texas. Arab militias armed by Sudan to fight the rebels continue to attack civilians and relief workers. In recent months, the militias—known as the janjaweed—have begun attacking across Sudan's western border, in Chad.
The violence and a lack of money keep relief agencies from reaching 30 percent of the 2 million people who have been forced from their homes in Darfur, the lowest level of humanitarian access in two years.
The peace proposal the government agreed to calls for disarming militias in the region. But rebels say the wording is too vague and might allow some militias to continue.
Rebels also want more money from the government to rehabilitate Darfur—the current plan calls for $300 million the first year and $200 million annually thereafter—and for one of Sudan's two vice presidents to come from the region, which is home to less than one-fifth of the country's population.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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