Diplomats dismayed by Darfur rebel's refusal to talk

Darfur rebel leader Abdol Wahid al-Nur, shown in an undated photograph from Paris, where he is living in exile.
Darfur rebel leader Abdol Wahid al-Nur, shown in an undated photograph from Paris, where he is living in exile. Courtesy Sudan Liberation Army-Abdol Wahid faction / MCT

PARIS — Abdol Wahid Mohamed al Nur was still a law student in 1992 when he formed the Sudan Liberation Movement to fight for the rights of people in his impoverished, little-known patch of western Sudan called Darfur.

Fifteen years later, Darfur is a byword for disaster, and Abdol Wahid's movement is in pieces. The rebellion he helped launch has devolved into a deadly free-for-all among the Sudanese government and an assortment of rebel factions.

Now, as the feuding rebels work to patch up differences and U.N. and African Union officials struggle to restart negotiations, Abdol Wahid is staying on the sidelines. But without Abdol Wahid, there's little hope for ending one of the world's worst humanitarian crises.

There's little chance he'll get involved anytime soon, however. In an interview with McClatchy in Paris, where he's spent the year in exile, Abdol Wahid insisted that he won't return to the negotiating table until Sudan's government fulfills its past pledges to end its military campaign in Darfur.

"We need security. We need the free will to say yes or no to a peace agreement," he said during a two-hour conversation on a park bench on a chilly autumn afternoon.

He might consider negotiating again once a U.N.-authorized peacekeeping force arrives in Darfur. But that could take many months. Sudan's government opposes the force, saying it doesn't want Western troops on its soil, and planners are struggling to win pledges of men and equipment from donor nations.

More than 200,000 people have died in Darfur since 2003, when Sudan's Arab-led government launched a fierce counterinsurgency campaign against Abdol Wahid's fighters and their allies. But in a sign of how the four-year-old conflict has turned on its head, the worst violence against peacekeepers and humanitarian workers now is blamed on the rebels.

Some diplomats who once hailed Abdol Wahid as a savior for the long-suffering people of Darfur now describe him as a spoiler of the peace process. At last month's launch of negotiations in Libya — which quickly stalled due to disarray among the rebels — U.N. and African Union mediators bitterly lamented Abdol Wahid's absence.

"His role is important," said Salim Ahmed Salim, the African Union's special representative for Sudan. "He personally could have assisted a lot."

Abdol Wahid, 39, angrily rejected charges that he was obstructing peace. Speaking animatedly, often drawing stares from elderly Parisians out for afternoon walks, he said that he'd learned a lesson from May 2006, when mediators led by then- U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick tried to pressure three rebel factions into signing a truce with Sudan.

Only one signed; Abdol Wahid rejected it. The negotiations drove a sledgehammer through the rebel movement, which split into nearly two dozen squabbling factions.

"That (agreement) has prolonged the suffering," he said. "I'm not going to negotiate like that again."

Since then, Abdol Wahid has stayed away from Darfur, citing security fears that he'd explain only by rolling up his left shirtsleeve and displaying a scar from a bullet wound on his elbow. He went into exile in Eritrea and then France, the only Western country that would grant him a visa.

He refused to say how long he would stay in France, where in Paris he lives or how he was paying his bills, although diplomats said he receives money from Sudanese expatriates living in Europe. Much of the two-hour conversation was devoted to the history of his movement and his grievances against the Sudanese government and other rebel groups.

Although he has relatively few fighters, most of them holed up in central Darfur's craggy Jebel Mara mountains, he's popular among many of the 2.5 million people who live in refugee camps in Sudan and neighboring Chad. As a member of Darfur's dominant Fur tribe, he could lend the rebels some political weight, experts believe.

In the months leading up to the Libya talks, a succession of high-powered envoys — the Bush administration's special envoy to Sudan, Andrew Natsios; French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner; former Irish President Mary Robinson and others — met Abdol Wahid in Paris to persuade him to join the negotiations. He spurned them all.

"Believe me," Salim said, "all appeals have been made to him."

In September, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte suggested that any leading rebel group that boycotted talks could face sanctions. Abdol Wahid laughed that off, saying, "They think they can sanction me worse than what has already happened to my people?"

But he's also rejected meeting with rival rebel groups, some of which he believes are secretly backed by the Sudanese government to stir up more chaos in Darfur. He described one of the leading factions — the Justice and Equality Movement — as "dangerous."

Diplomats said that stance makes him hard to deal with.

"It's not clear what his end game is," said Natsios, the U.S. envoy.

Natsios said that when he visited Darfur earlier this fall, he found that Abdol Wahid was circulating his message through the camps via statements on the BBC, Al Jazeera and other media outlets. Few of his supporters knew much about the peace process, Natsios said.

"His big base of support is the younger people in the camps, increasingly radicalized young people," Natsios said. "He can cause trouble in the camps if he doesn't get what he wants."

Abdol Wahid said he speaks daily with supporters in Darfur. He reached into his trouser pockets and pulled out, one by one, four Nokia cell phones and rattled off their designations: one to speak with military commanders, another for tribal leaders, a third for women's groups and the last for representatives in the camps.

But he bristled at the suggestion that he was fomenting opposition to negotiations for his own political gain.

"I am not a peace spoiler," he said. "There is no peace to be spoiled."