The leaders of two important Darfur rebel factions have set difficult conditions for attending a UN-African Union meeting in August in Tanzania to plan for future peace talks.The Arusha meeting on August 3-5 hopes to get the movements to agree to a venue for future peace talks, a unified platform for negotiations and to stem the factionalism that has plagued previous peace talks and fed violence in Darfur.
UN Darfur envoy Jan Eliasson and his AU counterpart Salim Ahmed Salim stepped up efforts in recent weeks to push talks to the table, after criticism of an initial slow pace.
Most Darfur rebel groups, including a new rebel umbrella of five groups formed last week under Eritrean mediation, said they would attend.
But founder and chairman of the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) Abdel Wahed Mohammad Al Nur said his group would not go to Arusha for peace talks until demands were met, including compensation for victims and a no-fly zone over all of Darfur.
“We will not be a part of Arusha until an oil-for-food programme is in place with money going to humanitarian aid,” Nur said in a statement sent to Reuters.
Nur has few loyal troops left but he is from Darfur’s largest Fur tribe and enjoys huge popular support, especially in the camps.
Another key group with a large contingent of troops said it would not go to Arusha until an SLM unity meeting took place.
“Before we go to Arusha or talks, there has to be a unity meeting to decide who from the SLM is going,” said Jar el-Neby, a commander whose group controls large swathes of North Darfur and is one of the few whose leadership is in the field.
But he added that the AU and the United Nations were moving in the right direction.
â€˜We will listenâ€™
International experts estimate 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million forced from their homes in more than four years of revolt in Darfur. Washington calls the violence genocide and blames the government and its allied militias.
Khartoum rejects the term and puts the death toll at 9,000, blaming Western media for exaggerating the conflict.
In the early years of the conflict the rebels were largely seen as fighting for the rights of their people, who they say are marginalised by central authorities.
But infighting, factionalism and increasing violence by rebel commanders against the world’s largest aid operation and AU peacekeepers has turned international opinion against them.
Only one of three negotiating factions signed a May 2006 peace deal in Abuja and since then groups have split into more than a dozen factions, creating lawlessness in large areas of West and South Darfur.
While Libyan and Eritrean initiatives seem to be uniting some, deep rifts remain and not all have agreed to go to Arusha.
“We will go and listen to what is there, if it helps unify the people then we will follow it up. We have done our bit to unify. We hope the others also make that move,” Sherif Harir, a senior member of the newly formed United Front for Liberation and Development, told Reuters.
The rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) led by Khalil Ibrahim also said it would attend the meeting.
JEM was hardline in talks in 2005-2006 in Nigeria. But since Ibrahim was named on a US sanctions list this year, he has moved back to Darfur and adopted a more compliant position.
Other smaller factions of the SLM are negotiating to unite in Tripoli under Libyan mediation and agreed to go to Arusha.
Observers say Harir’s group in Asmara contains senior and respected SLM figures but it is unclear how many troops are still under their control in Darfur. JEM and the Tripoli grouping have few soldiers and the leadership has been criticised for remaining outside the region.
Eliasson said they hoped to issue invitations to the negotiating table to specific rebel groups by the end of August.
Envoys had earlier set an August deadline for talks to begin.
“We want to avoid the deadline diplomacy which created the problems of Abuja,” said one senior Western diplomat in Khartoum. “But there still has to be a sense of urgency.”