KHARTOUM (AP) â€” US governor and potential presidential candidate Bill Richardson pressed Sudan President Omar Bashir to open the wartorn Darfur region to UN troops, part of a global push for an elusive peace in the African nation.
Richardson met Bashir privately for nearly an hour of talks on the western region of Sudan, where nearly four years of fighting have displaced 2.5 million people and seen more than 200,000 others die of violence, disease and malnutrition.
Richardson emerged touting progress. He would not say whether Bashir gave him any commitments, but he said they would meet again Wednesday and issue a joint statement then.
“The meeting was good. We made some progress,” Richardson told local reporters. Early Tuesday, Richardson departed for El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur, where violence and chaos has been on the rise. He planned to meet with the commander of the African Union force that is struggling to keep the peace and to visit the As Salaam camp, which has been growing as more Darfurians flee their homes.
Back at his hotel, the New Mexico governor told the Associated Press that he and Bashir had discussed the proposed UN peacekeeping force for Darfur, a cease-fire, protection for humanitarian groups working in the region, growing sexual violence against refugees and a potential conference with rebel leaders.
Bashir has refused to accept the UN Security Council plan to deploy 20,000 peacekeepers in Darfur, where an African Union mission of 7,000 troops has been unable to halt the violence between an array of rebel factions and government forces and allied militia.
His government has a record of appearing to accede to international pressure and then backtracking. Last month, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced that Sudan had provisionally agreed to accept a staggered version of the UN plan, but days later it became apparent that Khartoum would accept only small numbers of UN military and civilian advisers. The government signed a peace agreement with some rebels last May in Abuja, Nigeria, but most rebel faction leaders rejected the accord. A ceasefire was quickly broken and subsequently violence increased in Darfur.
“We’re going to press the rebels to participate not just in the Abuja process, but in the ceasefire and protecting humanitarian groups,” Richardson said Monday. He said he and Bashir discussed how to bring into the peace process those who had refused to sign the Abuja agreement.
Richardson also met earlier with Sudanese Foreign Minister Lam Akol, bringing along humanitarian workers that included one representative of the Save Darfur Coalition. The coalition organised the trip and has been instrumental in bringing attention to the crisis and criticism on Bashir’s government.
Save Darfur brought Richardson to Sudan because the governor has successfully negotiated in the past with Bashir. In September, the governor persuaded Bashir to release a New Mexico journalist imprisoned in Darfur.
Richardson also worked with Bashir in 1996 to negotiate the release of three Red Cross workers held hostage by Sudanese rebels.
The fighting in Darfur began in February 2003 when the region’s ethnic African population revolted against what they saw as decades of neglect and discrimination by the Khartoum government. The government sent in troops and the janjaweed was deployed.
The government denies supporting the janjaweed, which is blamed for the bulk of the atrocities, but UN and AU officials say Khartoum arms the militia and coordinates Sudanese army attacks with it.Â