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Despite Peace Process, Darfur Still Looking for Stability

In the past year, international efforts to end the four-year-old conflict in the Darfur region of western Sudan have included approval of a 26,000-member peacekeeping force; International Criminal Court arrest warrants for Sudanese officials; U.N.-mediated peace negotiations; and a succession of visits by diplomatic envoys. But as Derek Kilner reports from VOA's East Africa bureau in Nairobi, Darfur will finish 2007 in much the same state it was in at the beginning of the year, waiting for the arrival of U.N. troops, and with millions displaced by the conflict.

In the final days of 2006, Sudan's President Omar Bashir announced in a letter to outgoing U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan that the Sudanese government would begin implementing a plan to deploy U.N. peacekeepers alongside an existing African Union force in Darfur. U.N. and U.S. officials expressed hope at the apparent change in Bashir's position, but said they would continue to press Khartoum to follow through.

That task occupied Western diplomats throughout the year, with a steady stream of international envoys passing through Sudan in a revolving-door effort to convince Khartoum to accept the force. Those making the trip have included new U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon; American diplomats Andrew Natsios and John Negroponte; U.S. presidential hopeful Bill Richardson; France's new foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, and even a group of so-called "elders", including former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

In July, the U.N. Security Council approved a 26,000-strong joint AU-U.N. force. But the Sudanese government has continued to put up roadblocks in the form of conditions. The government has said it does not want the force to conduct night flights, for example, and has rejected troop contributions from certain countries including Nepal, Norway, Sweden, and Thailand.

Analyst Sally Chin, of the International Crisis Group, says the international community can expect obstacles to deployment of the force to continue.

"What we can predict over the next year is that the government of Sudan is probably going to be just as problematic at each step of the way in terms of deployment of the AU-U.N. force as it has been over the past few months," she said. "So I think we can expect to see continued roadblocks and obstructionism. A kind of one-step forward two steps back situation."

There has also been difficulty in acquiring contributions of military equipment, including helicopters. While the resolution called for the U.N. to take command of the mission from the AU on January 1, U.N. officials say deployment is months behind schedule.

It also appears unlikely that there will be a peace agreement for the troops to enforce when they arrive. The latest round of peace negotiations, mediated by the African Union and United Nations, began in Libya on October 27, but was quickly put on hold after the most influential rebel leaders refused to attend.

The U.N. Darfur envoy Jan Eliasson, speaking at the start of the Libya talks, acknowledged the difficulty of the task.

"You have the growing divisions inside the movements and also inside the government," he said. "Many people will say this is a gamble. But I think we had no way. You have to make an attempt to start another process."

While the violence in Darfur has not returned to the levels of 2004, the conflict has grown more complex. Rebel groups have splintered into more than a dozen factions.

Additionally, many of the Arab militias backed by Khartoum are fighting each other or rebelling against the government, sometimes in alliance with other rebel groups. Analysts say that as the realignment of Arab groups develops, there could be a significant impact on the direction of the conflict.

For the moment, as Chin tells VOA, moving forward with negotiations will be difficult.

"It is not a cut and dried conflict in that you have a few rebel groups and you have the government," she said. "Because you now have many, many groups caught up in the conflict... Until the factions are able to come to some sort of unity of position or unity of leadership, or in the best scenario both, it is going to be very difficult to have any negotiation whatsoever."

Further complicating matters is the fact that any peace agreement will have to take account of the separate deal signed between the government and rebels in South Sudan in 2005, known as the Comprehensive Peace Agreement . Analyst Mariam Jooma stressed this point in an interview with VOA in October.

"As much as the rebels would like to see more substantive power or more wealth sharing, everything will have to be determined by whether it is consistent with the CPA and the interim constitution ... There has to be a national understanding of the crisis in Sudan," Jooma said.

Meanwhile, as international peace efforts drag on, the population of Darfur, including the 2.5 million people displaced by the fighting so far, continues to suffer.

Humanitarian aid has been one of the few success stories in the response to the conflict, with mortality rates among those receiving international aid now lower than before the conflict began. But attacks on aid workers have risen over the course of the year, and rights groups have complained that Sudanese police have resumed attempts to forcefully relocate people from camps for the displaced.

The top U.N. humanitarian official in Darfur was expelled from the region in November.

Camp residents and aid workers will be among those watching closely when the U.N. peacekeepers finally begin their long-awaited deployment.