International mediators pushing for new negotiations on Darfur are being hampered by divisions among Darfur's rebels and by some rebels' hopes that genocide charges will bring down Sudan's president.
The ethnic African rebels, who rose up against the Arab-dominated Khartoum government six years ago, have never been united. But over the past year, factions have multiplied — up to 30 now by U.N. estimates, divided on tribal, political or personal lines.
Some faction leaders are not communicating with their commanders, and the U.N., African and Arab mediators have complained they sometimes don't know whom to talk to.
Now there are fears the conflict could spread beyond Darfur. Sudan's government has sent forces into neighboring South Kordofan province, claiming Darfur rebels are operating there, and the Justice and Equality Movement, the strongest Darfur rebel faction, has announced a military alliance with armed groups in Kordofan.
Some rebel factions refusing
Meanwhile, the U.N. and African Union's point man on Darfur has spent the past two months meeting with rebel factions in Darfur and abroad. The Persian Gulf state of Qatar is supposed to host a gathering of rebels and Khartoum officials, but Sudanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ali Sadiq said Friday that some rebel factions were refusing and no meeting date has been set.
Qatar "does not want to leave any loophole" by not having all rebels involved, Sadiq told The Associated Press. Another meeting for Arab and African mediators scheduled in Qatar on Monday has been indefinitely postponed.
As the deadlock persists, humanitarian agencies are reporting a surge in banditry and attacks on supply convoys, believed carried out by breakaway rebel gunmen who live off the thefts. The rebel groups deny any role.
Peacekeepers' movements have been limited since November, following 10 attacks on vehicles in a single week in the main central Darfur town of Nyala. In the last week of December, three aid vehicles were hijacked across Darfur. In one attack, a Senegalese U.N. peacekeeper was killed.
Pressure on the rebels to join talks intensified after President Omar al-Bashir in November offered a cease-fire and promised to address key rebel demands if they entered negotiations.
Most rejected a cease-fire
Most rebels rejected a cease-fire, saying Khartoum must first disarm pro-government Arab militiamen blamed for widespread atrocities. Up to 300,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million driven from their homes since 2003.
The rebels increasingly are vying among themselves for dominance. Late last month, Khalil Ibrahim, the leader of the Justice and Equality Movement, dismissed other groups as having been infiltrated by the government, or as "individuals with mobile phones who appear on satellite stations."
The group's top military commander, Suleiman Sandal, said it is ready to negotiate, but without other factions. In May 2008, his group launched a brazen military assault on the outskirts of Khartoum, the first such attack by Darfur rebel groups on the government seat.
The Sudan Liberation Movement, the largest but most fragmented rebel group, appears to be resisting talks in hopes the Sudanese president will soon be brought down by the International Criminal Court's genocide charges.
The ICC trial "is the only window of hope," Abdelwahed Elnur told The Associated Press from Paris, where he lives in self-imposed exile.
Elnur is revered by his fellow Fur, the majority tribe among the 6 million Darfuris. He is considered a pioneer of the Darfuris' rebellion against an Arab-dominated central government they accuse of monopolizing power and discriminating against them.
To some, Elnur is out of touch
But to some of his commanders, Elnur is looking out of touch. Jar al-Naby, a SLM commander in Darfur, said he and other commanders have not spoken to their leader for months.
"If Elnur remains intransigent, we have to speak our minds," said al-Naby. He said the rebels need to unite and capitalize on the international pressure being applied against the Sudan government.
"Before talking to the government we have to talk to each other, within the movement," he told The Associated Press. "We have to put together a program for dialogue. We can't leave it open indefinitely."
Commanders in one breakaway SLM faction recently ousted their leader, Ahmed Abdel-Shafi, in part because they don't want to join peace talks.
Meanwhile, ICC charges against three Darfur rebels for a 2007 attack on peacekeepers threaten to stir up even greater internal rivalry.
The joint U.N.-African Union mediator, Djibril Bassole, is focusing now on getting the rebels to call a cease-fire, after which efforts can turn to putting together negotiations, said Cajetan Banseka, a Bassole aide.
But Banseka warned that if Elnur doesn't back down, "at one point we will have to go ahead."