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Limited Attendance Marks Darfur Talks Debut

With Darfur peace talks said to be in jeopardy even before they began over the weekend in Libya, Sudan’s government announced a unilateral cease-fire. Several key rebel groups failed to attend the talks, which got under way Saturday in the Mediterranean seaside town of Sirte under the watchful eye of Sirte’s leading resident, Libyan President Muammar Gadhafi. One day later, an end to their opening phase was marked by speculation that the next phase would be postponed until abstaining rebel groups had fully prepared their positions and agreed to come to the negotiating table.  George Ola-Davies is UN spokesman to Jan Eliasson, the Secretary General’s special envoy to Darfur.  From Sirte, Ola-Davies says the organizers are eager for others to appear.

“It is not everybody that is boycotting.  We’re expecting more leaders to come here.  We are hoping that those who say they will not come now will have a change of heart and come.  We are hoping that those who have requested for some time to organize themselves will find it necessary to come so that their voices could be heard.  We wish for the internally displaced persons to be here.  We have among us the civil society movement.  We hope that everybody will be here so that we can look at the problems, find the solutions to them, and the people of Darfur live in peace and harmony for years to come,” he said.

The negotiations are being sponsored by the United Nations and the African Union to help pave the way for a political settlement ahead of the planned deployment of a reinforced 26-thousand-troop peacekeeping force due in the troubled region by early next year.  They follow by two days an agreement signed in Sirte last Thursday by Chadian President Idriss Deby and four rebel groups that operate in eastern Chad along the border with Sudan’s Darfur region.  Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir attended the Libyan-sponsored talks on Chad, but did not stay on for Saturday’s start of the Darfur talks, for which he was not a designated negotiator.  Ola-Davies points out that stopping the Darfur fighting is just a prelude to what he hopes will be a serious process of building the framework of a lasting settlement of the four-and-a-half-year-old conflict.

“What the negotiators are trying to do is to get everybody on board to agree to a cessation of hostilities, simply because you cannot be fighting and talking at the same time.  When the issues that are to be tackled will be tackled – and there are many – we have to talk about wealth sharing, power sharing, security, land problems.  Most of the groups are thinking of preparing themselves now to continue with the process which has already started here,” he noted.

International mediators are indicating that the next phase of the talks may continue until the end of the year with the possibility that more rebel groups may enlist as the talks progress.  However, sponsors had been hoping that the Libya discussions would help UN prospects for achieving a political settlement ahead of the planned deployment of the hybrid UN-African Union peacekeeping force across the embattled Western Sudan region by early next year.  Ola-Davies says organizers do not plan to place any deadlines on Darfur groups reluctant to come to terms with other parties involved.

“Listen, you cannot put any timetable to talks.  That does not mean it should be an open-ended one.  We are, as I say, at the preparatory stage.  Special envoys have made it clear that there are phases we are going to go into.  We are only at the beginning,” he says.  

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