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Darfur Talks Set For Crucial Phase

Peace talks to resolve the intractable violence in the western Darfur region of Sudan have been slow, but participants say there is hope for a resolution. The process is beginning to take shape at a time the United Nations is planning to establish a peacekeeping mission in Darfur.

The current round of talks in Abuja, the seventh since 2004, is considering issues relating to security arrangements, as well as power and wealth sharing.

The head of the rebel Justice and Equality Movement delegation at the talks, Ahmed Tugod, says the next few weeks could be very crucial for the process.

"Now, we are in a very decisive moment, and, I think, the next two weeks will be very decisive weeks, and that, these two weeks, will determine whether there will be peace or not," said Tugod.

The two main rebel groups in Darfur and representatives of the Sudanese government have made some progress in resolving the Darfur crisis since peace talks started in 2004.

The current round, which opened last November, has been bogged down by differences over post-war power-sharing arrangements.

Despite the difficulties, Sam Ibok, co-chair of the talks, believes a final agreement is within reach.

"I have done a lot of interviews, in which I have said, peace agreement is weeks away," he said. "And so, we are not talking about years, we are not talking about so many months, we are just talking about a period of weeks. And, it doesn't mean next week, it does mean we are not far from a peace agreement."

The presence of a large delegation of Darfur women in Abuja has also brought to the fore, the plight of women and children, considered the most vulnerable.

There has been an increase of violence recently in Darfur, and the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs on Friday called the deterioration of security "serious."

Amani Mohammed, a human rights activist and president of the Darfur Tears Organization, says the plight of women and children has not been sufficiently addressed.

"The crisis in Darfur, as you know, the ones who are suffering are women and children," Mohammed said. "Even the majority in refugee camps are women. For this reason, the women, they are the ones in need of peace, in need to be decision-makers, and to improve their standards."

A coalition of Darfur women is also pushing at the Abuja talks for major constitutional provisions to guarantee a minimum of 40 percent of positions in government to women.

Mohammed says the final outcome of the Abuja talks must reflect this aspiration of Darfur women.

"We are not agreeing to this peace to be signed, unless we get our situation, this 40 percent," she said. "We are not going to take less than 40 percent."

Plans by the United Nations Security Council to send peacekeepers to Darfur to replace an African Union force have been well received at the Abuja talks. The presence of U.N. forces could be crucial in post-war Darfur.