Truce raises hopes for peace in Darfur

/ Source: The Associated Press

A truce between Darfur's most powerful rebel group and the government of Sudan could pave the way for finally bringing peace to the war-ravaged region weeks ahead of the first national elections in decades.

Numerous cease-fires and peace deals in this seven-year-old conflict have been short-lived, but this time around increased international pressure and impending elections give this latest initiative a better chance for survival.

Despite the ebbing of violence in the last year, the U.N. estimates that some 300,000 people have died and 2.7 million been displaced since ethnic African tribesman in the vast arid western Darfur region took up arms against the Arab-dominated central government.

The truce set to be signed Tuesday in Doha, Qatar between the government and the rebel Justice and Equality Movement, was bolstered by the dramatic improvement in relations between Sudan and Chad — who once exchanged bitter accusations of supporting each other's rebels.

War crimes accusations
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is also facing war crimes accusations abroad and an election April, making him eager for some kind of breakthrough to improve his image abroad and at home.

The signing of the framework agreement will be attended by the U.S., the U.N. and Arab representatives as well as by the president of Chad.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Monday that the temporary cease-fire agreement is an important step toward reducing violence in Darfur.

The end of the long-running animosity between Sudan and Chad — which sponsored the truce only days after declaring the end to its long proxy war with Sudan — could be the deciding factor in this agreement's longevity.

"I can't deny that normal relations between the two countries will help," Tahir al-Faki, a senior rebel member of JEM, said in a telephone interview before heading to Doha for the signing.

The deal to be signed Tuesday provides for a temporary cease-fire which, if it holds, will lead to detailed political negotiations by March 15 on wealth sharing, compensation and political representation.

While the most powerful group, JEM is not the only rebel movement. A solution to the conflict has been continually dogged by the splintering of the rebels into dozens of factions, which although not as militarily powerful, can act as spoilers to any peace on the ground.

The dozens of rebel factions have coalesced into two main groups to unify their demands and negotiating position in the year-old negotiations in Doha. They were irked by the separate cease-fire with JEM.

The Sudanese government, however, was quick to assure the rebels of its continuing commitment to a comprehensive agreement.

'Important breakthrough'
"We believe that Darfur can't be solved bilaterally. We hope we can negotiate with the other groups to reach a final and comprehensive agreement," said Amin Hassan Omar, the official leading the year-old negotiations. He still hailed the truce with JEM as an "important breakthrough."

JEM, whose leader Khalil Ibrahim was a government minister before he joined Darfur rebellion, is already pressing the government to postpone April's elections so that it can take part.

Sudanese government spokesman Rabie Abdel Attie said delaying elections is currently not on the table. He said if a power sharing agreement is reached through negotiations, there is nothing to stop implementing it following the election results. He didn't say if rebel groups would be involved in overseeing the voting process.

Al-Bashir meanwhile is facing an incredible international challenge. He is the first sitting head of state to be wanted by the Hague-based International Criminal Court for war crimes committed in Darfur.

A settlement in Darfur would defuse criticism abroad and boost his legitimacy at home ahead of crucial elections.

Skirmishes in Darfur between his rebel group and government forces followed the initial announcement on Saturday. Al-Faki of JEM said his troops repelled a government attack over the weekend in western Darfur and seized government vehicles.

"On the political side we are negotiating. On the military side, we are not laying down our arms and we are very vigilante," he said.

A major rebel group that founded the rebellion, the Sudan Liberation Movement, has remained averse to joining the peace talks. Although weakened by splintering, the group's leader remains popular among Darfur's refugee community.