ABUJA, Aug 23 (AFP) — Sudan’s warring government and rebel leaders agreed to study an agenda for peace talks drawn up by the African Union, after a first day of negotiations revealed deep divisions over how to proceed.
The rival parties will examine the proposed blueprint overnight before resuming their meeting on Tuesday, but Darfur province’s rebel leadership was already warning that they would seek important changes to the document.
The AU’s chairman, President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, called the talks and invited senior officials from several African countries to mount a last ditch bid to head off a mounting humanitarian crisis in Darfur.
The United Nations estimates that more than 30,000 people have died and more than one million been displaced in 18 months of conflict.
Asked about the prospects for progress towards a peace deal, rebel negotiator Ahmed Mohammed Tugod told reporters: “It depends on how the other parties will accept the amendments we are going to need on this agenda.
“If they accept, it’s still possible that there will be some hope. Otherwise it will be an end of the talks,” he warned.
The head of the Sudanese government delegation, Agriculture Minister Majzoub al-Khalifa, was cautiously upbeat. “I think it has been a reasonable day. The talks will continue,” he told journalists as the talks halted for the night.
Olu Adeniji, foreign minister of conference host Nigeria, said that the African Union had presented the rival parties with a broad agenda of proposed action in the political, economic and security fields.
“They want to have time to study it,” he said, expressing confidence that both parties would agree to use the document as a basis for further talks.
But day one of the summit also revealed deep divisions between the rebels and the government over the scope of the meeting, and underlined how far the AU still is from being able to deploy a 2,000-strong peacekeeping force.
Both sides insist on the importance of a ceasefire signed between them in April this year, but both accuse the other of breaching it.
Sudan has come to Abuja to make its case that it is well along the way towards implementing a United Nations’ approved plan to restore security to Darfur, disarm its violent militia groups and protect food supplies.
For their part the rebels dismiss Khartoum’s promises and insist that the crisis can only be resolved through a broad political solution that better involves their region’s marginalised ethnic groups in Sudan’s political life.
“The government came with promises about security and development issues,” Tugod said. “We didn’t come here to talk about security and development … we’re here to talk politics.”
Sudan has come under intense international pressure to end attacks in Darfur and rein in the notorious Janjaweed, a pro-government Arab militia accused by the United Nations of the massacre of tens of thousands of civilians.
Al-Khalifa told reporters that Sudan would “simultaneously … disarm the rebel movement, the Janjaweed and the other militias.”
But he said the rebels did not represent the people of Darfur, and pointed instead to a dozen impassive, white-robed tribal chiefs who were brought to Abuja by the government team and sat in on the negotiations.
The United Nations has given Sudan until the end of the month to ensure the security of the people of Darfur or face possible international sanctions.
“The eyes of the world are on the region,” Obasanjo said. “The waiting cannot be indefinite, in the face of the suffering of thousands of innocent men, women and children in Darfur. We cannot afford to fail.”
The African Union has an agreement to deploy just over 300 Nigerian and Rwandan troops to protect its ceasefire monitors in Darfur. Nigeria and others would like to expand this force to form 2,000-strong peace mission.
The Sudanese delegation left the first meeting insisting that the issue of increasing the peacekeeping force was not even on the proposed agenda.
Nigeria’s Adeniji, however, said of the planned force: “It’s part of one of the agenda items.”
Obasanjo has led international pressure for the force.
The talks began as Sudan’s handling of the crisis in Darfur came under intense international scrutiny.
Britain’s foreign minister, Jack Straw, arrived in Sudan on Monday and his Dutch counterpart, Bernard Bot, is expected to follow him later in the week on behalf of the rotating European Union presidency.