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May 31, 2006 (KHARTOUM) — The African Union scrambled to persuade holdout Darfur rebels to sign up to a peace deal for the violence-wracked western Sudanese region, hours before a deadline expires.

With only one faction of the main rebel group having signed and another giving a flat no to the overture, the AU and its partners were pushing last-minute efforts to bring at least dissident factions on board.

“There are still several hours left before the deadline,” African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS) spokesman Noureddine Mezni said. “The path of peace is irreversible and it is our ardent desire to see everyone on board.”

The groups have refused to sign the accord aimed at ending three years of conflict in Darfur, which has left some 300,000 people dead and 2.4 million homeless. They argue that the deal fails to fully address their concerns.

But the AU said from its headquarters in Addis Ababa that a group claiming to represent a splinter faction of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) had arrived there to meet officials just hours before the midnight deadline.

“We have been approached by a certain number of groups who are favorable to the DPA,” AU Peace and Security Council commissioner Said Djinnit told reporters, referring to the Darfur Peace Agreement.

“Until the expiration of the deadline, we are hopeful the leaders of the (holdout) rebel groups will sign the peace deal,” he said.

“The dissident faction members of the JEM came here to sign, but they cannot sign today unless their leaders come,” an African diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Mezni said that while the groups may not be able to sign the already finalized peace deal, dissident factions and commanders within the groups could sign a different document.

“We are finalizing a different document, a mechanism will be put in place to receive the signatures of groups and individuals who have chosen the path of peace.”

A source close to the AU said seven field commanders from Abdel Wahid Mohammed al-Nur’s Sudan Liberation Movement faction had arrived in Addis Ababa on Tuesday to join the peace process “and before that many others did the same.”

Nur himself has said he will not sign unless the government agrees in a supplementary document to pay compensation and give his wing of the SLM a greater security role and a say in local and federal government.

Officials involved in the peace effort have warned Nur he risks becoming “irrelevant” should he refuse to jump on the peace bandwagon.

But the SLM founder represents the Fur tribe, Darfur’s largest, and has insisted on more concessions from the Sudanese government, which stands accused by Washington of perpetrating genocide in Darfur.

The SLM’s other faction, led by Minni Minnawi, is the only group to have so far signed up to the deal.

A spokesman for the JEM said that his group would not sign.

“Our demand is not met, and if it is not changed then we will not sign,” Mohamed Tirgani said.

He would not elaborate on what changes he wanted, but they are thought to include a seat on Sudan’s presidential council, which currently has three members.

Asked whether that meant the JEM would continue fighting, Tirgani said “we will see how things get on … We are not worried” about African Union sanctions due to be imposed if his group does not sign up.

Mezni said the AU would take swift action after the deadline expires.

“If they do not sign, it’s the AU Peace and Security Council that set the deadline and it’s up to them to take measures,” he said. “I can’t say when exactly they will meet, but it will be very soon.”

The Abuja accord, signed on May 5, provides for a more equitable distribution of power and wealth, the disarming of the pro-government Janjaweed militias and a referendum on the future of Darfur.

An SLM field commander in Darfur, Moussa Morneh, hinted that there was a possibility of the SLM coming on board.

“Maybe we will sign but, until now, we did not yet receive the message from the chairman (Nur) for signing,” said.

Nur himself, currently in Nairobi, was uncontactable.

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