September 21, 2007 (EL FASHER, Sudan) — U.N. and Sudanese government officials appeared together in Darfur for the first time in a ceremony marking International Day of Peace Friday, even as rebels and government forces jockeyed for position across the war torn region ahead of key peace talks.
A local Darfurian band played while provincial officials appeared with U.N. and African Union staff at the North Darfur state legislature and gave speeches on the urgent need for peace.
“This is a breakthrough, it’s the first time the U.N. is seen doing something in public with Sudanese officials in Darfur,” said Ali Hamati, a U.N. spokesman. “It sets a precedent for us working together,” he said.
Only a year ago, Sudanese officials viewed the U.N. as western spies and neocolonialists and President Omar al-Bashir had vowed to personally lead the resistance against any U.N. deployment in Darfur.
But Sudan finally agreed to a joint operation of 26,000 U.N. and African Union peacekeepers to deploy in the region. The force’s first blue helmets are expected in October and the U.N. is due to take over from the 7,000-strong African Union force by Dec. 31.
“We are partners for peace and we are serious about it, and we won’t give it up,” said Issa Barredine, the deputy wali, or governor, of North Darfur. He praised the U.N.’s efforts and called on all Darfur rebel factions to join the new peace negotiations due in neighboring Libya on Oct. 27.
In a video this week, however, Al-Qaida’s second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri, criticized al-Bashir for having caved in to international pressure and allowed in the U.N.
Al-Zawahri called for a jihad, or holy war, against what he described as Western invaders of a Muslim land.
Sudanese officials rejected his appeal. “Al-Qaida is not welcome in Darfur,” said Barredine.
Fighting erupted in Darfur in 2003 when ethnic African rebels took arms against the Arab-dominated central government, accusing it of neglect. Since then, more than 200,000 people have died, and 2.5 million mainly African villagers have been chased from their homes, generally by pro-government militias.
Despite the commemorations for peace day and a cease-fire pledged by al-Bashir last week, sporadic violence has continued across the western region.
The Sudanese air force has resumed air raids on villages in rebel-held zones, killing a a child and injuring two, rebels and observers said. The bombings, which took place this week, targeted at least three villages in North Darfur.
“One 12-year-old boy had his head cut off by a bomb,” said Jar al-Naby, a local rebel commander. He said there were at least two people injured and that cattle had also been lost. Aid workers in the zone confirmed the rebel’s account.
“We’re very surprised about these bombings,” al-Naby said by satellite telephone. He said his rebel faction wasn’t currently fighting and had announced its intentions to negotiate peace in Tripoli.
In the central Jebel Marra mountains, another rebel faction announced it had overrun an army garrison on Thursday, killing over a dozen troops.
The Sudanese military was not available for comment on either incident. But an international observer in Darfur confirmed the army suffered about a dozen casualties in Jebel Marra.
“It seems we’ll face regular clashes ahead of the peace talks as the army and each faction try to secure more territory for the negotiations,” the observer said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
U.N. Secretary General warned this week that increasing violence could threaten the talks’ success, and one prominent rebel chief, Abdulwahid Elnur, has refused to join the negotiations until Darfur is completely pacified and the U.N. peacekeepers deployed.
In the Sudanese capital, police broke up Thursday a demonstration of Elnur supporters.
“A group of 20 people tried to stage a riot, but police intercepted them and made arrests,” Gen. Mohamed Najeeb El Taieb of Khartoum’s police force said in a statement. He said those arrested had tried to throw Molotov cocktails at a gas tank in downtown Khartoum and that there were several wounded.
Demonstrators denied there had been any attempts at violence.