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Sudan Launches Darfur Peace Initiative

The Sudanese government has launched a peace initiative for the country's Darfur region. As Derek Kilner reports from VOA's East Africa bureau in Nairobi, the effort is being supported by the country's main political parties, but has been rejected by Darfur rebel groups.

Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir announced the start of the Darfur Peace Initiative at a conference of political parties and civic organizations in Khartoum on Thursday.

The effort is being billed as a homegrown attempt to reach a peace deal to the five-year old conflict. President Bashir also said the initiative would include some $250 million in new development projects for the Darfur region and trials for those suspected of crimes in the conflict.

The opening of the conference was attended by representatives of several of Sudan's political parties, including the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, former rebels who now control a semi-autonomous government in the south, and the northern Umma Party. There were also representatives from the African Union, Arab League, Egypt, Libya, and Qatar.

But Darfur rebel groups, whose participation would appear to be a requirement for any effective settlement to the conflict, declined to attend. Spokesmen for the Justice and Equality Movement and factions of the Sudan People's Liberation Army dismissed the initiative as an attempt by the ruling National Congress Party to avoid an arrest warrant for President Bashir at the International Criminal Court.

Hafiz Mohammed, coordinator for the Darfur program at Justice Africa in London, says there are many observers who share the rebels' view.

"Many commentators and politicians believe that the whole issue of having a national initiative is to try and bail out President Bashir from what he might face in the ICC with this indictment process going on," he said. "They want to rally the country. "

A number of smaller political parties also declined to attend, including the Popular Congress Party, led by Hassan al-Turabi a former ally of President Bashir.

Mohammed says the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, who waged a two-decade war against the northern government before a 2005 peace agreement, are supporting the initiative out of a desire to keep that deal, with its promises of national elections and a referendum on southern secession, alive.

"The SPLM themselves are divided. And they don't actually have a clear policy. I spoke to one senior SPLM and he said to me look we are a partner and we have an agreement which we need to be implemented," added Mohammed. "And al-Bashir is the one who actually guarantees that implementation. And we're going to stand by him because, standing by him that means he is going to guarantee that the agreement is going to be implemented."

The International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor requested an arrest warrant for President Bashir, on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. Sudan's government is seeking international support for having the UN Security Council dismiss or delay the request. This week, the court's judges gave the prosecutor one month to gather additional evidence in the case against President Bashir.

Efforts by the UN and African Union to negotiate a settlement to the conflict, which has killed between 200,000 and 300,000 people according to international estimates, have so far had little success. Efforts are under way to organize a new round of talks, set to be held in Qatar.