US seeks concessions for Darfur rebels

By Estelle Shirbon


ABUJA – US diplomats tried on Wednesday to extract concessions from the government of Sudan that could persuade rebels from the Darfur region to sign up to a draft peace agreement designed to end three years of war.


The government has

accepted the deal on security, power-sharing and wealth-sharing proposed by African Union (AU) mediators, but three Darfur rebel factions refuse to sign, citing objections on a wide range of issues.


U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick held a second round of talks with the government delegation on Wednesday. Zoellick arrived on Tuesday in the Nigerian capital Abuja, venue of the talks, as Washington increased pressure for a deal.


“It all comes down to a power play between Washington and Khartoum, and whether the Americans can wrangle enough out of the Sudanese so that they can then go to the rebels and say ‘here’s what we’ve got for you’,” said a Western diplomat who is closely involved in the talks.


The talks, in their seventh round, have dragged on for two years while violence in Darfur has worsened. Two deadlines have come and gone since Sunday without an agreement and the AU has set a new deadline on Thursday night.


The AU’s top two officials, Chairman Denis Sassou Nguesso, the president of Congo Republic, and commission head Alpha Oumar Konare, were scheduled to join the fray later on Wednesday.


Diplomats said they could help because Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir wants to be AU chairman next year, which could give the AU bosses some leverage over Khartoum. Bashir lost out to Sassou this year because of the Darfur conflict.


In addition, several African heads of state were due to arrive for a health conference and Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo suggested to the AU chief mediator that they too could get involved in the Darfur talks to ratchet up the pressure.

SECURITY

The Darfur rebels took up arms in early 2003 in the ethnically mixed region, which is the size of France, over what they saw as neglect by the Arab-dominated central government.


Khartoum used militias, known as Janjaweed and drawn from Arab tribes, to crush the rebellion. The fighting has killed tens of thousands of people while a campaign of arson, looting and rape has driven more than 2 million from their homes into refugee camps in Darfur and neighbouring Chad.


Diplomats said the best hope of a breakthrough in the talks rested with American efforts to engineer a trade-off of concessions on two contentious security issues. The idea is that such a trade-off could unlock the wider negotiation.


Under a U.S. proposal, a part of the AU draft requiring the government to disarm proxy militias before the rebels lay down their weapons would be amended to suit the government better.


In return, Khartoum would accept a detailed plan for integration of specific numbers of rebel fighters into the Sudanese security forces. This is a key rebel demand.


“Majzoub has finally met his match in Zoellick,” said the Western diplomat, referring to the government delegation chief, powerful Sudanese presidential adviser Majzoub al-Khalifa.


However, it is still unclear whether the rebels could be persuaded to sign even if they did get a few extra cherries.


They are split into two movements and three factions with complex internal politics and a history of infighting, making it hard for them to agree on any major decision. — Reuter