ABUJA, Dec 18 (AFP) — The African Union’s bid to broker a settlement to the Darfur conflict was on the brink of collapse as mediators waited to see if the Sudanese government and its rebel foes would respond to an ultimatum to respect a ceasefire.
As an African Union deadline of 1700 GMT neared, its Chairman Alpha Omar Konare “stressed the urgent need” for the the Khartoum government and two rebel movements to comply with a ceasefire deadline.
Peace talks in Nigeria have effectively been stalled since Tuesday when rebels of the Sudanese Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) and Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) walked out, complaining that Khartoum had ordered an offensive in the south of Darfur.
International officials observing the Abuja talks were due to be briefed at 6.00 pm, after which delegates from the warring parties were to be invited to a 9.00 pm meeting to decide on the future of the conference, AU officials said.
A senior AU diplomat told AFP Sudanese government troops had not yet began to withdraw from positions sized in a recent offensive against rebels in the Darfur region, as demanded in an African Union ultimatum.
“As of 12 o’clock (1100 GMT) today they had not complied. We are still going to check again since we gave them until 6.00pm,” said Sam Ibok, chairman of the political negotiations at the Africa Union’s Darfur peace conference in Abuja.
AU observers monitoring a shaky ceasefire signed in April have confirmed that both sides have resumed hostilities in the ravaged but resource-rich region, the size of France.
Konare urged Khartoum “to immediately stop its present military offensive and withdraw its forces to their former position in order to create an enabling environment for ongoing political negotiations in Abuja,” the statement said.
“SML and JEM should also stop all attacks against commercial activities and government structures, including police stations,” the statement said, adding that AU mediators in Nigeria were still waiting with bated breath for both sides, reputed for trashing deals, to return to the table.
Darfur has been a theatre of clashes since February 2003 when the rebels from minority tribes took up arms to seek greater autonomy for the region, but Khartoum and its proxy militia responded with terrifying brutality.
Tens of thousands are estimated to have been killed and 1.6 million driven out by the conflict.
On Friday, the commander of the African Union’s observer force in Darfur confirmed that the Sudanese army and the government-backed Janjaweed militia were indeed on the march and had attacked two towns and looted and burned at least eight villages in the first two weeks of December.
Sudan’s chief negotiator, Agriculture Minister Majzoub al-Khalifa, told reporters government forces had been ordered to halt their advance and had complied except in one area where he said they had been attacked by rebels.
Responding to Okonkwo’s report, the AU commission overseeing the peace process issued an ultimatum.
The JEM’s chief negotiator Mohammed Ahmed Tugod said Saturday that the government had done nothing to halt its advance. “We expect fighting in a few hours from now,” he warned. SLM spokesman Mahgoub Hussein said simply: “The government is playing games, nothing has changed on the ground.”