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Analysts Skeptical About New Agreement for Stabilizing Darfur - 2004-08-09

A new agreement between Sudan and the United Nations to create safe havens for civilians in Darfur within 30 days is expected to be signed Monday in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. Meanwhile, the government says it is ready to restart peace negotiations later this month in Nigeria with Darfur rebels.

The agreement, called the Plan of Action for Darfur, was first reached last week between Sudanese Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail and the U.N. special envoy to Sudan, Jan Pronk.

Among other things, the agreement calls for the establishment of safe areas for civilians in the region, where the United Nations says an estimated 50,000 people have been killed and more than a million others displaced in 17 months of fighting.

The plan also prohibits government troops, Darfur's two main rebel groups and pro-Khartoum militias, known as the Janjaweed, from conducting military operations within these safe areas. Observers from the African Union and other countries are to be dispatched to Darfur to monitor the situation.

The agreement is to be implemented within 30 days, in line with a U.N. Security Council resolution passed nine days ago. That resolution calls on the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum to disarm the Janjaweed within 30 days, or face unspecified sanctions. Human rights groups and rebels accuse the government of arming the Arab Janjaweed in a campaign to ethnically cleanse the area of blacks.

The U.N. envoy, Jan Pronk, says he hopes that an immediate implementation of the action plan will lead to what he calls substantial progress in Darfur and convince the U.N. Security Council not to take action against Khartoum.

The London-based human rights group, Amnesty International, declined to comment about the agreement Monday, saying it needed more time to study the details of the plan.

A Sudan expert at the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies, Richard Cornwell, says the envoy must be given credit for persuading government officials to be more flexible in their approach to the Darfur crisis.

"Their initial reaction has been to be very hard-line indeed, and talk about taking on all comers in land, sea and air," he said. "But much of this is posturing. The Sudanese government needs peace. It needs the assistance of the outside world in developing its oil industry and reaping the benefits of that. So, there are imperatives that would move them forward toward a peaceful settlement. That said, they are not likely to embrace any sort of an agreement that would lead to a massive shift in the power balance in Khartoum."

Many observers say they believe the Darfur rebellion does pose some threat to the Khartoum government. At least one of the main rebel groups, the Justice and Equality Movement, has publicly stated that its goal is not only to get a share of Sudan's wealth and resources for the people of Darfur, but to overthrow the government.

The leadership of the Justice and Equality Movement is believed to have ties to prominent opposition leader Hassan al-Turabi, a black Muslim who has been jailed by Khartoum on charges of starting the Darfur rebellion. And there is growing evidence that some of the Darfur rebels are now coordinating their fight against Khartoum with long-established rebel groups in the east of the county.

With such factors at play, Mr. Cornwell is among many analysts who remain skeptical that Khartoum, or anyone else, will be able to stop the violence in Darfur any time soon.

"Sometimes, the international community is so desperate to get signatures on a piece of paper that they don't always consider that this is only the first and very hesitant step toward peace," said Richard Cornwell. "There's a lot of room for maneuver, a lot of room for backtracking and deception."

On Monday, Sudanese Foreign Minister Ismail said that the government would take part in peace negotiations to begin in Abuja, Nigeria, later this month. The last round of talks fell apart in mid-July, after the rebels accused the government of ignoring previous agreements.