Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on Wednesday rebuffed calls for U.N. peacekeeping troops in war-ravaged Darfur despite personal pleas from New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.
Richardson wrapped up a four-day private diplomatic mission with a conditional promise from various factions in the conflict for another cease-fire.
Al-Bashir has resisted international pressure to allow U.N. forces in Darfur, arguing they would be “colonialist,” and he offered fresh criticism of the U.S. treatment of Khartoum. The Sudan leader complained to the U.S. delegation that American promises to Sudan had gone unrealized while little pressure had been applied to rebel groups.
“Our experience with U.N. operations in the world is not encouraging,” al-Bashir told an Associated Press reporter in a brief interview Wednesday at his residence, a rarity for Western media.
“There are sufficient forces in the Sudan from African countries to maintain order and they can provide order. All we need is funding for the African troops.”
Richardson claims progress
Richardson, a potential Democratic candidate for president, pressed his case with al-Bashir in two meetings during his African visit, emphasizing that despite the divided government in Washington there is bipartisan support for greater a U.N. role.
While disappointed with Sudan’s response on U.N. troops, Richardson claimed accomplishment in getting a cease-fire.
He and al-Bashir issued a joint press statement that said both sides in the fight agreed to a 60-day cessation of hostilities while they work toward lasting peace. However, many issues were outstanding, including whether al-Bashir would uphold his verbal agreement despite a history of breaking commitments.
“It’s not everything we asked for, but it’s an important first step,” Richardson said in an interview. “We’re slowly moving in the right direction with President Bashir.”
He called himself a “facilitator,” and added: “I believe we’ve achieved something significant. It needs to be followed up. But unless there is proper implementation and follow through, this agreement is still up in the air. But I believe we’ve made an important breakthrough.”
There is broad skepticism around the world about al-Bashir’s commitment to peace after years of support for local militia attacks on innocent civilians in Darfur. More than 200,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million forced to flee their homes in violence that President Bush has labeled genocide.
Meanwhile, the U.N. mission in Sudan said Wednesday that over 20 people were killed and 14 wounded during tribal fighting in North Darfur.
Seven thousand African Union troops have been assigned to provide security in Darfur — a number even the commander of the force has said is insufficient.
Al-Bashir spoke to an AP reporter traveling with Richardson’s delegation at the end of their meeting. The Sudan leader complained that the United States should have rewarded Khartoum for signing a cease-fire agreement last May in Abuja, Nigeria, by lifting sanctions, providing aid and erasing debts.
“The focus should be on the Abuja agreement and pressure exercised on those who refuse to sign the Abuja agreement,” al-Bashir said of rebel forces.
Al-Bashir may fear that a large U.N. presence would constrain Sudanese army troops and their allied militias, as well as make it more likely that suspected war criminals will be brought to trial by the International Criminal Court. Al-Bashir has refused to hand over suspects to the ICC.
‘The situation is deteriorating’
But he also placed some blame for the violence on the rebel armies who refused to sign the government’s cease-fire agreement last May. The rebels have been fighting against the government for what they consider decades of neglect and discrimination by Khartoum.
“The situation is deteriorating,” Richardson told Sudanese reporters waiting outside the residence. “I’m concerned about it. I believe that the rebel groups need to become signatories to the peace agreement, the Abuja peace agreement. And we pressed the rebel groups very strongly to become part of the peace process.”
Richardson met with three rebel delegates in Darfur Tuesday who have refused to sign. They told him they will insist that al-Bashir disarm the janjaweed, reunite the three states in Darfur, give them a role in the government and pay victims for their losses.
Richardson asked rebels he met if they would be willing to lay down their arms for 60 days and negotiate a cease-fire with the government. They said they would.
“When the government is serious, we have no problem,” said Col. Adul Abdallah Ismail of the Sudan Liberation Movement.
But it’s not clear who the three men Richardson met with represent since the rebels have become increasingly fragmented since the May agreement. The three who met with Richardson said they want to have a conference of those who did not sign to choose common leadership, but the government is preventing it.
Richardson said al-Bashir agreed to support the meeting and a peace summit with the rebels by March 15. Schedule and details would be the responsibility of the African Union and the United Nations.
The joint statement also said Sudan would stop painting its planes white — the color reserved for international forces — which has caused confusion. Bashir, according to the statement, also promised to prosecute sexual assaults and help improve access for humanitarian workers and journalists.