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Rebel Absences May Imperil Darfur Peace Talks

A major rebel group in the Darfur region of western Sudan says it will not attend peace talks with the government that are scheduled to begin Saturday in Libya. As Derek Kilner reports for the VOA from Nairobi, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) is the latest rebel faction to announce it is boycotting the negotiations, raising doubts about what the talks will be able to achieve.

The rebel group JEM issued a statement Tuesday saying it will not attend Saturday's talks in Sirte, Libya.

Several other rebel factions have also indicated they will boycott the talks. These include a Sudan Liberation Movement faction led by Ahmed Abdelshafi and the Sudan Liberation Movement-Unity faction, as well as influential Sudan Liberation Movement leader Abdelwahid al-Nur.

Researcher Mariam Jooma, with the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa, says she believes the absence of so many key figures will make it difficult to achieve results.

"The rebel factions are not wanting to attend because they believe that they still have not reached a consensus view as to what their demands are," she said. "Basically what this means is that the joint mediation support team that is made up of the special envoys of the AU [African Union] and the U.N. as well as representatives of the international community will be facing quite a difficult task."

Previous negotiations on the Darfur conflict in 2006 produced a peace agreement that was signed by only one rebel group, the Sudan Liberation Army faction led by Minni Minawi, who has since joined the government. That deal has had little impact and conflict has persisted between government-backed forces and the groups that refused to sign.

There are fears that without the participation of the major factions, any agreement produced in the current round of talks could prove as ineffective at stemming violence as last year's agreement.

The challenge may be even greater this time around, as the number of rebel factions in Darfur has multiplied during the past year.

The former southern rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation (SPLM) have been mediating talks between the numerous Darfur rebel factions in an attempt to forge a more unified voice for the Libya talks.

Meanwhile, the SPLM, which signed a power-sharing peace agreement with the Khartoum government in 2005, recently suspended the participation of its ministers in that government.

Jooma says this development could affect the credibility of the government as a negotiator in Darfur.

"The withdrawal of the SPLM will have a major impact on who the government is, because the SPLM, at the moment, represent the second major partner after the National Congress Party of the Government of National Unity," she added. "So if you are talking about hosting talks between the government and rebels, who will be representing the government then? Essentially it will just be then the National Congress Party."

Jooma says the conflict in Darfur and the dispute between the SPLM and the Khartoum government should be addressed together, since any agreement on Darfur must take account of the provisions of the existing agreement between the north and south.

Sudan's government says the Libya talks should proceed, and international mediators have given no sign that talks may be postponed.