|Khalil Abdalla commander of the Sudanese Liberation Movement (SLM) attends Sudanese peace talks in Abuja, Nigeria|
Delegations representing Sudan's government, and Darfur's two rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Movement, or SLM, and the Justice and Equality Movement, known as JEM, began meetings in Abuja early Friday. Despite having failed to make any real progress during previous attempts at ending the conflict in western Sudan, all sides say they are guardedly optimistic.
A spokesman for the Justice and Equality Movement, Ahmed Tugog, told VOA, if a binding peace deal is to be negotiated, it must be done very soon. "We do believe also this round is the crucial round for this peace process in Darfur. And that's the reason why we came to this round. [We] sincerely want to achieve peace for the people of Darfur," he said.
But Africa analyst for the London-based group, Oxford Analytica, Jason Mosley said recent divisions among the rebels make the chances of groundbreaking progress unlikely. "This week has not been a good week, in terms of what's happening between the rebel groups themselves. The SLA and JEM have been fighting with each other this week. And the AU had to admonish them, and make sure they were going to show up. So, I'm not expecting a dramatic announcement," he said.
A representative from the civil society group, called Sudan's Darfur Relief and Documentation Center, Abdelbagi Jibril, says responsibility for the failure of previous negotiations falls not only upon the rebels, but also on the government and the international community. "Both parties were not prepared to come to a meaningful agreement, and respect whichever documents they signed. And, also, there is no real intervention from the international community," he said.
An April 2004 cease-fire has been routinely broken by all sides.
Around 2,700 AU soldiers are currently on the ground in Darfur to protect cease-fire monitors. They do not currently have a mandate to intervene to protect civilians. The AU recently asked NATO to help it increase the number of troops in Darfur to more than 7,000. On Thursday, NATO defense ministers approved an operation to airlift thousands more peacekeepers from African Union nations into Darfur.
Mr. Jibril said little has changed in the past six months. And, though a peace agreement would be good, he said, it is important that the international community take immediate measures to stem the violence in Darfur. "These efforts really need to be increased many-fold. And we need more soldiers, more troops, with a mandate not to protect themselves, but to protect the people," he said.
Tens-of-thousands of people have died in the conflict in Darfur, which began in early 2003. Many more have been displaced.
Human rights groups accuse Sudan's government of backing Arab militias, known as Janjaweed, in their campaign of systematic murder, rape, and torture against Darfur's majority black population.
The United States government has in the past characterized the attacks against Darfur's civilians as genocide.