Deadlock in Darfur Peace Talks

( [email protected] ) Nov 01, 2003 06:40 PM EST

Peace talks between the government of Sudan and a Darfur rebel group have broken down indefinitely, because the government will not accept the presence of international observers at the negotiating table, according to the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) spokesman, Ahmad Abd al-Shafi.

Committees holding talks in Abeche, Chad, had failed to reach agreement after four or five days of negotiations, he said, leading to the deadlock since 25 October.

He said the SLM/A was demanding the presence of international observers "at least to make sure that what we are talking about is taken seriously". "We don't trust the government," he added.

Chadian authorities had been present during the talks, but they were "friends of the government", he charged. "We need neutral observers from different countries."

"The government refuses from the very beginning, thinking it's just a small conflict. They just want to offer us development," he said, "but the principles should be fixed before negotiations start."

A ceasefire agreement between the two sides expired on 18 October.

As with the larger Sudanese conflict, the root cause of the Darfur situation is unequal access to and control over resources. Nomads in Darfur, who are supported by violent Arab militias, called Janjawid, have pitted themselves against local farming communities, which are being pushed off their land towards towns and cities.

The government has denied backing the militias but has committed itself to controlling them.

The UN estimates that over 500,000 people have been displaced by the militias since February, in addition to the 200,000 displaced in southern Darfur between 1998 and 2001, and 70,000 who have fled to neighbouring Chad. Hundreds have also been killed.

The SLM is demanding a secular state in Darfur, equitable sharing of wealth and power for the region, and recognition for Darfur's non-Arab ethnic groups, who are being targeted by militia attacks. "Darfur is defined as an Arab state, but Sudan is for all Sudanese," Abd al-Shafi said. "The question of identity is very important."

In the absence of any agreement on these issues, the SLM/A would continue to fight and defend its people, he added. On Wednesday seven villages were burned to the ground by militias in southern Jabal Marrah, he said, where clashes with Arab militias were occurring every day.

Speaking to journalists in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, on Thursday, USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios said the Darfur conflict was the worst in the region since independence. He said there had been 7,000 casualties since February, 300 villages had been burned to the ground and 10 percent of the population displaced.

"This is very serious. We don't want to have an end to a war and a new war starting in the west," he said. "We're pretty concerned that as we're settling one dispute, we're going to begin another one."

Natsios added that USAID looked forward to starting reconstruction projects in areas of Sudan which had sustained long-term conflict, including Darfur, the Red Sea State and areas of the south. But if fighting continued, or there was no overall peace agreement, only "spot reconstruction" would take place. "We're not going to invest in rebuilding buildings just so they can get blown up," he said. "We cannot begin our reconstruction programme in Sudan unless there is peace."

USAID has set aside US $200 million for Sudan for next year, a $40 million increase on last year's budget specifically for reconstruction and development projects.