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Sudan may make concessions in peace talks

Sudan appears poised to disarm the Janjaweed militia faster and accept more rebels into its security force in U.S.-initiated concessions that meet fighter demands for bringing peace to Darfur, a government spokesman said Wednesday
/ Source: news services

Sudan seems poised to disarm the Janjaweed militia more quickly and accept more rebels into its security force in U.S.-initiated concessions that meet fighter demands for bringing peace to Darfur, a government spokesman said Wednesday.

Abdulrahman Zuma said the concessions, including speedier disarmament of the Janjaweed militia the government is accused of unleashing on Darfur civilians, were part of U.S.-brokered changes to a draft peace treaty the rebels had rejected. The government had accepted the initial draft but now appeared ready to accept changes.

“Through this so-called American initiative, it seems that the government is going to make some concessions, especially about reintegration and disarmament,” Zuma told the Associated Press.

U.S. heightens involvement
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick flew to Abuja, the Nigerian capital where peace talks are being held, to try to break the deadlock over an African Union-drafted peace proposal.

“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 U.S. delegation noted progress in the talks. “From what we’ve seen, the parties do seem to want to reach an agreement,” said Richard Mills, a spokesman for Zoellick.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she had heard from Zoellick and all sides were working very hard in Abuja to get a peace deal.

“I hope the parties will take this opportunity to get a peace agreement and lay a foundation on which the violence can end and so the people of Darfur can be safe and live in peace,” Rice said in brief comments to reporters in Washington before a meeting with Japan’s Foreign Minister Taro Aso.

Changes in draft proposal
Two Sudanese officials close to the negotiations said earlier Wednesday they had seen a recast proposal that made substantial changes to the initial AU draft. The three-year conflict has led to the deaths of at least 180,000 people and the displacement of more than 2 million.

Jaffer Monro, spokesman for the main Sudan Liberation Movement, had said that if the initial proposal was not significantly changed, the rebels would press for the United Nations or another body to take over the peace talks. The AU has overseen the talks for two years, and its mediators have often expressed frustration at both sides’ seeming unwillingness to compromise or adhere to a cease-fire declared in April 2004.

Monro was not immediately available to comment on the possibility the proposed agreement would be changed to meet rebel concerns.

Denis Sassou-Nguesso, the Republic of Congo’s president and current head of the 53-nation AU, and other African leaders were expected in Nigeria later Wednesday to add to the push to resolve the crisis.

AU pushing for resolution
AU mediators had set a Sunday deadline for the two sides to accept the original draft, but extended that twice after meeting rebel objections. The latest deadline is midnight Thursday.

Asked late Tuesday what would happen if there is no agreement by Thursday, chief AU mediator Salim Ahmed Salim said: “There will be continued killing, continued suffering, and all the destruction that has been going on.”

Zoellick was dispatched to the session after thousands of people rallied over the weekend in the United States calling for an end to violence and deprivation in Darfur.

President Bush called Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on Monday night about the importance of peace in Darfur. Bush has described government-backed attacks on civilians in Darfur as genocide.

During the call, Bush urged al-Bashir to send his Vice President Ali Osman Mohammed Taha, who left Abuja Monday, back to the peace talks, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said. Bush also told al-Bashir to accept a U.N. peacekeeping mission backed by NATO logistics and training.

Complex conflict
Two main rebel groups both accuse the central government of neglecting impoverished Darfur, though they also have battled each other for territory and at least one has developed its own internal factions.

The Justice and Equality Movement is closely linked to Islamic fundamentalists.

Decades of low-level tribal clashes over land and water in Darfur erupted into large-scale violence in early 2003. The central government is accused of responding by unleashing Arab tribal militias known as Janjaweed upon civilians. Sudan denies backing the Janjaweed.

Darfur has been a staging ground for Chadian rebels, who have risen up against the government there, and Sudan accuses Chad of supporting Darfur rebels. The violence threatens to escalate: Osama bin Laden last week urged his followers to go to Sudan to fight a proposed U.N. presence.

Uptick in violence
Even as the peace parley continued in the Nigerian capital, U.N. officials reported an upsurge of fighting in Darfur.

Sudan Darfur region

Ted Chaiban, who heads Sudan operations for the U.N. Children’s Fund, said the hardest-hit areas included rebel-held Gereida, near the South Darfur capital of Nyala, which UNICEF says has seen major Arab militia attacks that have forced 200,000 people from their homes in the last three months alone.

Chaiban said the various factions likely were expecting a treaty in Abuja and were jockeying to hold the most territory before a cease-fire was declared.

“It is important that the agreement be signed so that this kind of jockeying ... would cease,” Chaiban said in a telephone interview Tuesday.