The U.N. envoy to Darfur, Jan Eliasson, says he fears the start of what he calls "a new and dangerous phase" in the four-year-old conflict in western Sudan unless all warring parties take part in a United Nations-African Union mediated political process. As VOA correspondent Alisha Ryu reports from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi, the absence of two important rebel leaders from that process is hampering efforts to reach a final agenda for peace talks with the Sudanese government, due to begin in two months.
Speaking to VOA by telephone from Sudan's capital Khartoum, the U.N. Darfur envoy says he is pleased that three days of unity talks in Arusha, Tanzania succeeded in the goal of producing a common platform among more than a dozen quarreling Darfur factional leaders.
The meeting, organized by Eliasson and his African Union counterpart, Salim Ahmed Salim, concluded Monday with an agreement on land issues and power and wealth-sharing.
"All movement leaders came, except one, and this is the most representative meeting we have had since the Abuja talks last year," he said
At those talks in Nigeria, the Sudanese government signed a peace deal, but only one Darfur rebel group endorsed it. The endorsement fractured the rebels into myriad splinter groups and sparked a new round of violence in the region.
The rebel leader who boycotted the Arusha talks is Abdel Wahid Mohammed Nur, founder of the Sudan Liberation Army, which started the rebellion against Khartoum in 2003.
Nur, living in exile in Paris, refused to attend, arguing that a ceasefire should be in place and a no-fly zone established in Darfur ahead of any peace talks.
Eliasson says he remains hopeful that Nur will join the others at the negotiating table. The rebel leader's participation in the political process is considered crucial because he has a huge following among Darfur's largest tribe, the Fur.
"There is a chair available and the door is open for Abdel Wahid. I hope that the rebel leaders and the field commanders who were in Arusha with us will communicate to Abdel Wahid and to the people of Darfur that we have a meaningful and serious process," he added.
Another key rebel leader absent from the Arusha talks was the Sudan Liberation Army's humanitarian coordinator, Suleiman Jamous.
Jamous, who is highly regarded as a consensus builder among rebel commanders, could not leave the U.N. hospital in Darfur, where he has been virtually imprisoned for more than a year. Sudan accuses Jamous of being a terrorist and has threatened to arrest him if he left the hospital.
On Tuesday, Sudan's foreign ministry said Jamous could join the peace process if the international community guarantees he will not rejoin the armed rebellion in Darfur.
The U.N. envoy says he believes every effort must be made to bring all of the leaders together and quickly find an end to the bloodshed in Darfur, which has killed some 200,000 people and displaced 2.5 million others in the past four years.
"If we do not take this opportunity now, I am worried about the frustration and anger in the camps that could take different forms," he noted. "I worry about tribal clashes that are going on right now. And I worry about settlers taking over land, which is owned by other people. This will mean that we may enter a new dangerous phase of the situation in Darfur. So, here is a crucial time."
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is expected in Khartoum Saturday to discuss ways to move the Darfur peace process forward.