Darfur peace talks 'doomed' after rebel leaders pull out

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Peace talks aimed at ending the four-and-a-half-year conflict in Sudan's Darfur region could be doomed before they begin after the leaders of the two largest rebel groups said they would not take part.

Khalil Ibrahim, the leader of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), has joined Abdul Wahid al-Nur, the leader of the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM), in refusing to take part in the talks in Libya, which are due to begin on Saturday.

A previous agreement, from 2006, failed to bring peace after Mr Nur and Mr Ibrahim refused to sign it. Since then, the rebel groups have fragmented into more than two dozen factions, although Mr Nur and Mr Ibrahim remain the most influential leaders. At least six other small factions are also boycotting the talks. Rebel leaders have criticised the decision of the UN and African Union to hold the talks in Libya, a country which has been a major player in the Darfur conflict. Libya's leader, Muammar Gaddafi, further incensed rebels this week by likening the conflict to a dispute "over a camel".

The collapse of Sudan's coalition government this month has also cast doubt over the legitimacy of the talks. A peace deal between the Khartoum regime and former rebels in the south, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), is on the brink of collapse after the SPLM pulled out of the government of national unity. Some Darfur rebels have said they will not negotiate with the government if the SPLM is not present.

The failure to implement the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which ended the civil war in 2005, has also cast doubt over whether Khartoum can be trusted to fully back any peace deal negotiated in Libya, the rebels claim.

"Darfur is not going to be resolved if the CPA falls apart," said Sally Chin, a Sudan analyst with the International Crisis Group.

Several rebel leaders have spent the past week in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, where they have been trying to form a common, united position. UN and African Union officials are still hopeful that some will be persuaded to attend.

Sir John Holmes, the UN's humanitarian chief, said he hoped that more rebel leaders would come to Libya. "It's not a once-for-all offer. It is possible to join later if the process starts to make progress," he said.

The talks, to be held in Col Gaddafi's home town of Sirte, will include workshops to discuss security, humanitarian and economic issues. Negotiations are not expected to begin for several weeks.