Sudan’s president met with the pope and Italy’s premier Friday and offered to declare a cease-fire with Darfur rebels to coincide with the start of U.N.-backed peace talks next month.
Past truces have been regularly violated, and at least two rebel groups quickly dismissed his offer.
Still, after President Omar al-Bashir’s meeting with Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican expressed hope the upcoming talks would end the suffering in Darfur, where more than 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million made homeless since ethnic African rebels took up arms in early 2003 against the Arab-dominated Sudanese government.
Sudan’s government is accused of retaliating by unleashing a militia of Arab nomads known as the janjaweed, a charge Khartoum denies.
Al-Bashir told reporters after meeting with Italian Premier Romano Prodi that he was offering a cease-fire linked to the start of negotiations Oct. 27 in Libya, which borders on Darfur, to “create a positive climate.”
“We hope that the negotiations in Tripoli will be the last ones and that they will bring definitive peace,” al-Bashir said.
Sudan's forces allegedly violated truces
A rebel leader, Abdulwahid Elnur of the Sudan Liberation Movement, has refused to join the talks, saying negotiations should not start before a cease-fire and before the arrival of a U.N.-African Union peacekeeping force. U.N. officials have said troops could start deploying in October.
“How many cease-fires is al-Bashir going to offer?” Elnur asked Friday in a telephone call from Paris, adding: “No one on Earth will make me go” to Libya.
Elnur listed nearly a dozen that he said Sudan’s forces violated, but observers said some were also breached by Darfur rebels.
Al-Bashir’s truce offer came after his forces launched a major attack earlier this week on another rebel faction, the Justice and Equality Movement, in northern Darfur. JEM leader Khalil Ibrahim, who had earlier said he would go to Libya, now says he might not if government attacks continued.
JEM’s chief political negotiator, Abdullahi Eltom, dismissed al-Bashir cease-fire offer on Friday, saying the president’s “word is worth nothing.”
At a news conference late Friday, al-Bashir criticized the rebel groups that aren’t willing to engage in talks. “We think there are a number of factions not ready to obtain peace,” he said.
“They are enjoying their stay in these luxurious hotels” in Europe, he said, adding that he had asked both the pope and Prodi to urge the French government to pressure rebel leaders it is hosting to join in the peace process.
Vatican, Italy face criticism
The Vatican and Italian government have come under criticism from at least one human rights group for agreeing to meet with al-Bashir, but Prodi defended the visit as a “useful” way to press Sudan to make good on its pledges about Darfur.
And while the pope in the past has denounced the humanitarian disaster in Darfur as “horror,” the Vatican chose an upbeat tone to describe Benedict’s 25-minute talks with the Sudanese president in the papal summer palace in Castel Gandolfo outside Rome.
Discussions were particularly focused on Darfur, the Vatican said. “Very positive views were expressed concerning fresh peace negotiations,” it said.
“It is the Holy See’s heartfelt hope that these negotiations prove successful in order to put an end to the suffering and insecurity of these peoples,” the Vatican statement said.
The human rights group Amnesty International had expressed concern about what the visit by al-Bashir, who came to power in 1989 in a military and Islamic coup, would achieve and why Italy agreed to welcome him.
Last month, a U.N. report accused the Sudanese government of failing to investigate rapes allegedly carried out by Sudanese forces and militiamen, an accusation Sudan’s justice minister has called untrue. On Thursday, a separate U.N. report said children in Sudan are still being recruited to fight and suffer abuses, including rape and abduction.