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Rising Tension, Confusion Ahead of Darfur Peace Talks

The largest rebel group in Sudan's Darfur region has threatened to back out of African Union-brokered peace talks with the government just as the talks were to resume in Abuja, Nigeria.

The talks were expected to start Thursday, but now African Union officials said that was unlikely. They said many of the delegates to the peace talks had yet to arrive in Abuja, Nigeria's capital.

The negotiations are aimed at ending violence in Darfur that claimed some 180,000 lives and forced millions out of their homes. Five previous rounds of talks have made limited progress toward peace and so far the cease-fire the parties agreed to is being routinely violated.

The smaller Justice and Equality Movement rebels said they would attend the talks.

Some leaders of the splintered Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) have threatened to boycott the peace talks following what they say were government-backed attacks earlier this week that killed about 20 rebel fighters and civilians. Others said they would attend the talks.

Sudan's government has vowed to go ahead with the negotiations even if SLA negotiators do not show up. "Our delegation leader has said they are going to start the negotiations whether they attend or they don't attend, because time is running short and people are suffering," said Abu Zeid, Sudan's ambassador to the African Union.

Zeid denied SLA accusations that the Sudanese army and its allied militias attacked rebel positions. "That did not happen, at all," said Zeid. "On the contrary, [the rebels] are ones who have attacked in north Darfur. They have attacked vehicles 10 days back. And they've rustled cattle and killed several people and abducted some of them. They have taken more than 200 heads of cattle and camels. They are the ones refusing to talk. They are the ones refusing to abide by the cease-fire, and the U.N. has already issued a communiqué on that," he added.

The African Union, which is sponsoring the talks, has sent about 3,000 troops to Darfur to monitor the tenuous cease-fire. It has accused the SLA of carrying out an August 25 attack in Darfur in which Arab nomads were killed and more than 3,000 camels were stolen.

A new rebel group that emerged last year is insisting that it be included in the Abuja talks.

This round of negotiations is expected to focus on disarming rival militias in the Darfur region and on a power-sharing arrangement with the Darfur rebel groups.