updated 12/5/2007 7:11:20 PM ET 2007-12-06T00:11:20

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged some of Africa’s most unstable states Wednesday to restore security and shore up faltering peace deals, but a Sudanese faction’s rebuff and the Somali president’s illness stole momentum from her attempts at diplomacy.

In a hectic series of meetings in the Ethiopian capital, Rice tried to calm the volatile Great Lakes region, ease rising tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea and violence in Somalia, cool the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur province, and salvage a shaky north-south Sudan peace deal.

Rice had said she wanted to tackle elements of the Darfur conflict and bolster the 2005 peace deal that ended a separate, long-running north-south civil war. But the government of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir skipped the meeting, although Rice went on to meet southern Sudanese leaders, according to a list of delegates released by the U.S. Embassy.

In Khartoum, Sudan, a ruling party official said the government, from which southern officials recently withdrew, had skipped the talks because it did not want Rice to intervene in the north-south dispute. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The Sudanese government’s official explanation was that it had received invitations “only a few days ago,” not giving senior officials enough time to rearrange schedules.

“Our absence is not a sign of defiance,” Ali Sadiq, the spokesman for Sudan’s Foreign Ministry, said in Khartoum. “If they (the U.S.) had told us earlier, we would have come.”

Tricky relations between U.S., Khartoum
Washington-Khartoum relations have been strained, with U.S. leaders accusing the government of atrocities in Darfur and Khartoum bristling at Western pressure to allow international peacekeepers in Darfur. But Washington also sees Khartoum as an ally in the war on terrorism.

Earlier, Rice said she wanted to focus on overcoming logistical hurdles holding up a joint U.N.-African Union peacekeeping force for Darfur, a vast region ravaged by years of conflict.

More than 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million displaced since February 2003 when Darfur’s ethnic African rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated central government, accusing it of neglect.

As for the 2005 peace deal between al-Bashir’s government and southern rebels, she said “it’s time to refocus our efforts there.”

“That is really an agreement that we cannot afford to let unravel,” Rice said.

Also Wednesday, Rice urged more nations from the continent to send peacekeepers to war-battered Somalia — a country the U.N. says is facing Africa’s worst humanitarian crisis.

There are about 1,800 Ugandan peacekeepers in Somalia, officially as the vanguard of a larger AU peacekeeping force, though no other countries have sent reinforcements so far. Ethiopia, which sent soldiers to Somalia last year to wipe out Islamic militants, is not part of the peacekeeping force and is hoping to withdraw.

“We do believe the Ethiopian forces should not have to stay in Somalia past a certain point, and that will require peacekeeping forces, very robust peacekeeping force,” Rice said.

Peacekeepers have tried to pacify Somalia before, with tragic results. More than a decade ago, a massive U.N. relief operation was launched for thousands of civilians left starving because of fighting in Somalia. But 1993 attacks by Somali militiamen that brought down two Black Hawk helicopters and killed 18 U.S. servicemen were followed by the withdrawal of U.S. troops and the eventual end of the U.N. peacekeeping operation.

Reshuffling in Somali Cabinet
Somali Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein, who met with Rice because Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf was ill, said the talks were positive.

“It put on the top of the agenda those burning problems that now need to be solved, that need to be addressed and one of these is the improvement of the security environment,” he said.

Hussein, the former head of the Somali Red Crescent Society, is new in office and not believed to have influence over clans, and therefore the political influence of the president. The government as a whole is struggling to assert authority.

Five government ministers resigned this week, soon after the Cabinet was named, to protest their clans’ lack of representation.

“The Somali leadership is going to have to really reach out to all the elements that are not associated with terrorism,” Rice said. “It has to be broad and that’s really my message to the prime minister. He has to find a way to broaden his base of support.”

Last year, a radical Islamic movement accused of links with al-Qaida seized control of much of southern Somalia, prompting Ethiopia to invade in December 2006 with Washington’s tacit backing. The Islamic movement was toppled, but its supporters have waged an Iraq-style insurgency. A Somali human rights groups said over the weekend that nearly 6,000 civilians have been killed in the crossfire this year.

Congo also addressed
Elsewhere, Rice said dealing with rebels in eastern Congo is critical to re-establishing normalcy in a region that has been devastated by decades of war and genocide that have killed millions.

Fighters following a renegade Congolese general have clashed with government forces who are backed by the U.N. The violence has displaced tens of thousands in recent weeks, straining humanitarian resources in Congo and neighboring Uganda. There are also concerns that Rwanda and other neighbors could be drawn into Congo’s conflict, as they have in the past.

Rice also met with Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, a U.S. counterterrorism ally criticized for a crackdown on political opponents and whose country shares a tense border with arch-foe Eritrea.

“There must not be a resumption of hostilities initiated by either side,” Rice said after the meeting, referring to a feared resumption of the 1998-2000 Ethiopian-Eritrean war that killed tens of thousands of people.

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