African Union talks peace but Sudan's tribal leaders remain divided

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A senior African Union envoy is touring Darfur to press tribal leaders to talk peace, ahead of a visit to Sudan by the UN secretary general, who is expected to increase momentum for the deployment of a robust peacekeeping force.

The envoy, Salim Ahmed Salim, held talks yesterday with Arab and non-Arab tribal leaders in Geneina, the capital of west Darfur, before touring refugee camps to speak to the victims of ethnic cleansing by Sudanese government forces and allied Arab militias who have driven 2.5 million people from their homes since 2003.

The rebel leaders remain divided, despite an agreement reached by about a dozen factions in the Tanzanian resort town of Arusha earlier this month on a joint negotiating platform ahead of talks with the Sudanese government.

The most influential leader, Abdel Wahed Al-Nur boycotted the Arusha meeting. Mr Nur, who lives in Paris, is holding out until the planned force to be run jointly by the African Union and the UN is deployed. But the full 26,000-strong force, which was authorised by the UN Security Council last month, is only expected to be deployed next year. The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-Moon, is expected to travel to Khartoum at the beginning of next month to thrash out details of the force which is to be dominated by African peacekeepers in line with Sudan's wishes. "We share the view that it would be much better to start negotiations when there is security," Mr Salim told Reuters.

"I accept Abdel Wahed's position. I accept everywhere we have been the concern has been security," he said. "[But] what I don't accept is to say unless we have absolute security it is not worth it because at the end of the day it is the negotiations which will ensure durable security."

Mr Salim appears to be appealing to the grass roots in order to raise the pressure on Mr Nur. Today he will be talking to refugees in camps around Mr Nur's home town of Zalengei.

"We've talked to the movements, we talked to the government but at the end of the day it's important that whatever agreement that eventually comes ... must be accepted by the Darfurians," Mr Salim said.

The AU mission, which is struggling to carry out its mandate, has faced opposition from the displaced in Zalengei, many of whom support Mr Nur, whose Sudan Liberation Army was the first to rise up against the government in a rebellion over land and grazing rights in 2003.