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Khartoum Government and Darfur Rebels Set for Peace Talks

Sudan's government and two rebel groups in the country's western Darfur region are set for another round of peace talks aimed at ending an 18-month conflict. But observers see a slim chance of a breakthrough in the talks that resume Thursday.

The Sudan government and Darfur's two rebel groups, the Sudanese Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement, have agreed to return to negotiations in the Nigerian capital, Abuja. The first round of talks in September ended in failure, with Khartoum accusing the international community of meddling in the negotiations.

In this fresh round of talks, the rebels plan to push the Sudanese government to disarm the Arab militias which are blamed for much of the violence, halt aerial bombings of Darfur's villages and withdraw government troops to the garrisons they occupied before the conflict began.

In a telephone interview from N'Djamena, Chad, Sudanese Liberation Army spokesman Adam Shogar says he doubts whether Sudan is willing, or even able, to agree to the rebels' key demand -- to rein in the Arab militias, known as the janjaweed.

"Even if there is a solution about the janjaweed, our problem or our case is not a janjaweed case. Our case is a political case to solve our problem within all Sudan, to get equality in Sudan, to get our rights in political things, to get our rights in the sharing of the wealth of Sudan, all these things."

Asked if he felt confident whether the next round of talks would lead to a peace agreement, Mr. Shogar had this to say:

"No, no, no. Because they are used to playing tactics just to prolong the situation. Of course they are not ready, unless there is more pressure from the international community."

But the Sudanese government says it is sincere in its desire to reach an agreement with the rebels to end the conflict. Back from an emergency, five-African nation summit in Libya, Sudan says it is willing to grant more autonomy to Darfur and give the region's six-million people a fair share of the country's oil wealth.

Abdel Wahab, Sudan's state minister for foreign affairs is optimistic that his government and the rebels can find a political solution to the Darfur crisis.

He says, "This week [there was] a very successful summit in Libya, and this summit also has come with very conclusive agreements that the Sudanese government and the rebels should go directly to negotiate a political settlement. And that the government of Sudan is fully in accord with those terms of the resolution."

Some analysts say the Khartoum government's optimistic posture going into the talks belies its real intent: to stall the Darfur peace process until the government can reach a power- and wealth-sharing arrangement with the country's southern rebels, the Sudanese People's Liberation Army, ending a deadlier and longer-running civil war than the one in Darfur. They say that accord would provide a blueprint for solving the Darfur conflict.

But talks between Khartoum and the SPLA, which resumed earlier this month in Kenya, were adjourned last week for Ramadan, the Muslim holy month.

According to Tom Cargill, Africa specialist for the London-based Royal Institute for International Affairs, Khartoum sees a bigger picture than just the problem in Darfur. He says the Sudanese government is trying to figure out a way to neutralize rebel movements in the country's west, east, and south without giving up too much power.

He says, "I do not think that Khartoum is really taking the amount of pressure that would be required to make it seriously end the insurgency in a peaceful manner in Darfur. You have to remember, of course, that Khartoum considers its control of the entire country at stake here. With the south of Sudan threatening to split away, you have some sort of autonomy. And now the western, in terms of Darfur, threatening to break away. Khartoum is really left with the prospect of being in control of a much reduced area to some extent. It is not going to give that up easily."

Meanwhile, the African Union plans to expand its peacekeeping force in Sudan to stop the violence. And the United Nations, with U.S. backing, considers sanctions against the oil-rich nation that has has been accused of failing abide by a U.N. mandate to control the janjaweed accused of carrying out atrocities in Darfur.