Darfur talks on shaky ground even before they open

TRIPOLI, Libya — African and United Nations diplomats are preparing a Mediterranean seaside conference center for a crucial round of peace talks on Sudan's Darfur region, but it's still not clear whether any of the war-torn country's key rebel leaders are going to appear.

Western Sudan's rebel ranks are badly fractured, and a string of commanders said this week that they'd boycott the talks, which are scheduled to begin Saturday in Sirte, Libya. The African tribal rebel leaders, meeting in southern Sudan, said they wanted more time to draft a common negotiating position before they sat down with Sudan's Arab-led government and international mediators.

Among the eight announced no-shows are two of the most powerful rebels: Abdol Wahid al Nur, who commands the support of Darfur's dominant Fur tribe, and Khalil Ibrahim, whose forces are thought to have the most military might.

Underscoring Darfur's volatility, Ibrahim's Justice and Equality Movement attacked a Chinese-run oil field in the neighboring Kordofan region Tuesday and seized two workers, a Canadian and an Iraqi. On Thursday, a spokesman for the group told news agencies that attacks on oil installations in Sudan would continue unless the government met its demands, which include greater political power and a larger share of Sudan's wealth, which is largely fueled by oil.

Sudan's government is blamed for unleashing Arab militias against the rebels in 2003, beginning a campaign that's left at least 200,000 people dead and forced 2.5 million to flee their homes. This week the government raced to seize the high ground, naming delegates to the talks, promising to observe a cease-fire and accusing the rebels of obstructing peace efforts.

Despite months of preparations and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's recent declaration that this round of negotiations would be final, however, no one is betting on a breakthrough. A handful of rebel representatives are expected in Libya, but experts described them more as militia commanders than political leaders.

"That might actually spoil the whole process," said Hafiz Mohamed, a Sudan expert with Justice Africa, a British advocacy group. "If the senior leaders don't participate, it's not helpful. I just don't see any chance of these negotiations making any progress, at least in the beginning."

Rebel leaders also have objected to the location of the talks: the hometown of longtime Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who convinced Sudanese President Omar al Bashir and African Union leaders to let him play host. Some rebels contend that Gadhafi is loyal to Bashir.

"The place is not suitable for us," Ibrahim al Hillo, a field commander loyal to Abdol Wahid, said by satellite phone from Darfur, where he planned to sit out the talks. "Since the start of this problem in Darfur, Libya is standing beside the Sudanese government."

Some observers think that the talks will adjourn within a few days and reconvene somewhere else. The lead U.N. mediator, Jan Eliasson, said this week that tribal elders and civic leaders had pledged to participate and he hoped rebel leaders would join later.

"We will allow plenty of time for the (rebel) movements to have consultations among themselves, because the real negotiations will start only after we have the full preparations of the parties," Eliasson said Wednesday.

But by demanding that the talks start on time, experts fear, diplomats may be setting up a repeat of last year, when, under pressure from then-Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick and other high-powered mediators, only one of three rebel factions agreed to a truce with the government. The deal quickly crumbled and only deepened the rifts among the rebels, who splintered into nearly 20 groups.

Now it's the rebels who are blamed for most of the violence and banditry in Darfur, including a brazen raid on an African Union base last month that left 10 peacekeepers dead.

That attack illustrated how badly security has deteriorated in Darfur, and it led rebel leaders and human rights groups to renew calls for the rapid deployment of the much larger, U.N.-led peacekeeping force that the Security Council authorized in July.

The U.N. is struggling to deploy the 26,000-strong force, due in Darfur by December but unlikely to arrive for many more months. Planning has been plagued by disputes over the makeup of the force, which Sudan wants to be predominantly African. Last month, Sudanese officials rejected a proposal to include an engineering unit from Norway and infantry troops from Thailand and Uruguay.

Planners also say they need 18 transport helicopters and six light tactical helicopters to cover Darfur's vast, forbidding terrain, but so far no country has offered to contribute them.