Crippled by the absence of key rebel leaders, a highly anticipated Darfur peace conference was in effect postponed yesterday to give rebel delegates time to prepare before direct negotiations with the Sudanese government.
The UN and African Union peace mediators described a multi-phase process of talks involving an initial "consultation" period ahead of "substantial negotiations" set to open in a few weeks.
"The process leading to negotiations has begun," said Salim Ahmed Salim, the AU envoy. The mediators stated the consultation phase would start Monday, and Salim said "the actual date when the negotiations will begin" would be determined later.
The peace conference opening Saturday had widely been expected to see direct negotiations between rebels and government forces to resolve over four years of crisis in Sudan's western Darfur region that has claimed 200,000 lives.
But none of Darfur's rebel main leadership was in the Libyan coastal town of Sirte for the start of the talks, dashing hopes that an agreement could rapidly be reached.
"The real substantial negotiations will start when the parties are prepared," UN mediator Eliasson said to reporters. He told The Associated Press he expected this to begin in about three weeks.
Opening the talks Saturday, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi noted that both key rival leaders, Abdulwahid Elnur and Khalil Ibrahim, were absent. "These are major movements, and without them we cannot achieve peace," he said.
During the coming weeks, several significant rebel groups who are now boycotting the talks could chose to join, mediators said, stating Ibrahim's Justice and Equality Movement could be one of them.
The mediators declined to say the conference was being adjourned, insisting instead that the preliminary low-level talks were a necessary build-up for full-fledged negotiations.
"I refuse to state that the peace process is interrupted. The train has left on the road to peace ... the question is how many passengers will come on," Eliasson said.
Mediators stated they would remain in Libya, but said envoys from their teams could be sent to Darfur or elsewhere to press rebel leaders to attend.Reuse content