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Effort to resolve split in Darfur rebel group makes little progress

NAIROBI, Kenya—A U.S.-led effort to resolve a split among rebels in Sudan's devastated Darfur region got off to a bad start Tuesday when the dueling factions walked out of the negotiating room.

Negotiators coaxed both sides back to the table after a half-hour, but there was little other progress at a meeting that U.S. and international envoys hoped would kick-start foundering efforts to end a conflict that's claimed at least 180,000 lives.

A widening split in the Sudan Liberation Movement, Darfur's leading rebel group, is undercutting peace negotiations with Sudan's government, while violence escalates in the western part of the country. Hundreds more people were killed last month, including two African Union peacekeepers, and attacks on aid workers have increased.

The Bush administration, under pressure from lawmakers of both parties to find a solution, this week dispatched the No. 2 State Department official, Robert B. Zoellick, to Sudan for the fourth time since April.

On Tuesday, Zoellick met with the rebel factions at a luxury hotel in Nairobi, Kenya, to urge them to adopt a unified negotiating position before peace talks with the government resume Nov. 21.

Once hailed for rising up against a repressive Sudanese regime, the rebels are now battling each other in armed skirmishes in Darfur as their leaders jockey for position in the peace process.

The conflict in Darfur began in February 2003, when rebels began an uprising against an Arab-dominated government it felt was marginalizing them. The government enlisted horse-backed militiamen—known as janjaweed—to put down the uprising. The janjaweed launched attacks on villages and slaughtered vast numbers of civilians in a campaign the United States has labeled genocide.

The African Union-sponsored peace talks have stalled, and experts say the Sudanese government will exploit the rebels' rift at the negotiating table.

"The rebels are increasingly problematic and increasingly an obstacle to a negotiated solution," said Dave Mozersky of the International Crisis Group think tank.

Two men claim leadership of the group. Minni Arcua Minnawi was elected president by SLM members last week, but the incumbent president, Abdol Wahid Mohamed al-Nur, says the election was invalid because he didn't participate.

Complicating matters, Minnawi didn't attend Tuesday's meeting, sending a deputy instead.

The day began with Minnawi's people walking out of the plush conference room where talks were being held, followed immediately by al-Nur and his team.

Zoellick persuaded both sides to return after 30 minutes.

"My concluding point with the SLM was that we want to help them, but to help them they need to help us be able to deal with a unified movement," Zoellick said afterward.

Other participants had harsher words for the rebels, saying they couldn't count on international support if they continued to hold up peace negotiations.

"We cannot tell them who their leaders and representatives should be," said Baba Gana Kingibe, the African Union's special representative to Sudan. "But we can tell them they better get their act together."

Zoellick was expected to travel to the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, on Wednesday to discuss implementation of a peace agreement that ended a separate conflict between the northern government and southern rebels in January.

U.S. and international officials hope that agreement, which provides for a unified government and power sharing among various factions, will pave the way for a similar agreement for Darfur.

Some 7,000 African Union troops are now monitoring an April 2004 cease-fire agreement that has been violated countless times. In recent months, aid workers have reported that the Sudanese government is continuing to arm militias in Darfur and has restricted access for African Union personnel.

Zoellick's trip comes as Republican and Democratic lawmakers have called on the Bush administration to pressure the Sudanese government to fulfill its commitments under the cease-fire.

In a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Oct. 28, more than 100 members of Congress accused the Bush administration of "engaging in a policy of appeasement" with Khartoum.

Last week, after the Senate Appropriations Committee cut funding for the African Union mission in Darfur by $50 million, four senators—Democrats Richard Durbin of Illinois and Jon Corzine of New Jersey and Republicans Sam Brownback of Kansas and Mike DeWine of Ohio—urged Bush to make up the shortfall in a supplemental appropriations bill. The money could provide for about 700 more troops.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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