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US Envoy Calls Darfur Deal Important Step on Path to Peace


U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, who helped reach Friday's Darfur peace accord in Nigeria, calls the deal an important step on the path to peace in the region. He spoke to reporters in Washington on a telephone hook-up.

Deputy Secretary Zoellick, who has been the Bush administration's point man for Darfur, worked virtually around the clock for the last few days in the Nigerian capital Abuja to help hammer out the peace accord.

In a conference call with diplomatic reporters here, he said the accord signed by the Sudanese government and the main Darfur rebel group is an important step that should bring about a quick decline of violence in the western Sudanese region that has been torn by conflict for three years. "Do I hope that there will be a significant decline in violence: yes. Can I be certain? No. Will there be ups and downs and incidents? I expect sadly to say there will be. But can you put those incidents on a downward slope and take action against them? I believe you now have a much better chance to do so. And that will help also deal with the basic needs of humanitarian support," he said.

The deputy secretary said one of two Darfur rebel groups that refused to sign the accord may be wavering in its decision, and he said those who stay out of the process run the risk of being shunned as renegades and outlaws.

Zoellick hailed the African Union and Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo in particular for what he said was an extraordinary job in mediating the accord.

He said the United States and the European Union supplemented the process with political support and proposals to strengthen the draft, which includes specific guarantees that government-backed Janjaweed militiamen are to be disarmed before the Darfur rebels surrender their arms. "The sequencing and phasing schedule requires that the Janjaweed and other armed militia be disarmed before the rebel forces assemble and prepare for their own disarmament and integration, and the African Union will be a verifier of this. We also added requirements about the Sudanese government punishing ceasefire violations, including through immediate disarmament and demobilization," he said.

The deputy secretary said he expects an early push to back up Friday's agreement with an increase in the size of the African Union observer mission in Darfur, a prelude to its conversion to a full-scale U.N. peacekeeping mission, which he said is at best still several months away.

He also said it will be supported politically by an international conference on Darfur reconstruction and development within about three months that the Netherlands has offered to host.