Sudanese rebels claim new talks are last hope for peace

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The Independent Online

African leaders were still trying late last night to break the stalemate in peace talks for Sudan's troubled Darfur region. Rebels said the meeting would determine whether the three-week-old peace talks would break up.

African leaders were still trying late last night to break the stalemate in peace talks for Sudan's troubled Darfur region. Rebels said the meeting would determine whether the three-week-old peace talks would break up.

Mediators were calling the talks deadlocked a week ago, but the Nigerian President, Olusegun Obasanjo, the host and current head of the 52-nation African Union, yesterday called the two sides together for a closed-door meeting.

The session "will decide whether it will be the end of the talks or not," the top rebel delegate, Ahmed Tugod Lissan, said. There was no word of any compromises. Insurgent and government delegates have differed on a raft of issues, with disputes centring on how to return security to the western Sudan region, where the rebels took up arms 19 months ago.

The Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the smaller Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) are the official enemy of Sudan's government ­ the people they claim to be fighting each time villages in Darfur are attacked. The two rebel factions were formed early last year to fight back against government-sponsored Arab militias ­ the Janjaweed ­ that periodically attacked civilians in Darfur.

The UN's World Health Organisation estimated this week that between 6,000 and 10,000 of the people who have fled their homes as a result of the attacks are dying each month either from violence or disease and malnutrition, a death rate comparable with the height of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.

Some refugees, including children, are turning to the rebel groups. Khalid spends his days cleaning guns and brewing tea for soldiers. He claims to be 15, but is closer to 10, and ran away from his mother to join the rebel Sudan Liberation Army. "I am very angry because my father was killed, one of my brothers and my uncle, and they took all our animals," he said, dragging on a cigarette. "I have no work to do in the refugee camp. I want to fight."

The rebel soldiers have let him hang around, doing odd jobs, until they find someone to take him back to his mother in the Tullum refugee camp in Chad. But even if Khalid is sent home, there are hundreds more like him, a few years older, who will be allowed to fight.

Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, declared last week that the violence in Darfur was genocide, and the UN is expected in the next week to debate a US-proposed resolution putting pressure on the Sudanese government by threatening sanctions on its oil industry. The US yesterday distributed to UN members a revised version of the draft resolution.

Obtained by Reuters, it says the Security Council "shall consider" punitive measures, such as actions "to affect Sudan's petroleum sector" if atrocities in the Darfur region continue and Khartoum fails to co-operate with an expanded monitoring force from the African Union. Previously, it said the council "will take further actions" if Sudan does not comply.

Sudanese government delegates at the talks yesterday repeated charges that General Powell's genocide declaration imperiled the talks. Officials insisted they would stick with the peace efforts, however. Najeeb El-Khair Abdel Wahab, the deputy foreign minister, said: "We believe it's still possible to have meaningful talks and reach agreement."

The Sudanese government also rejects UN casualty estimates. It says conditions are improving and outbreaks of violence are the responsibility of the SLA and the JEM.

It is true that the position of the armed bands has hardened. Many have lost family and land and the conflict has taken on the characteristics of a blood feud. "We knew when we took up arms that our people would become refugees," said Isadhin Yahya, a former medical student now with the SLA. "But we also knew that if we did not fight, our people would all be dead."

The rebels have attacked aid convoys and many say they have been obstructive at the peace talks. Their military strikes have also given the Sudanese government an excuse to keep troops in Darfur. But most of the fighters in the SLA insist they joined after their villages were attacked by the Janjaweed. They are after revenge, not peace.

Ismail, 22, stands to attention at an SLA training camp near the Chad border, cradling a Kalashnikov. "My village was burnt and everyone I loved died," he said.

He's not interested in peace talks. "Now I want to die in battle. I don't want any family because the same tragedy will happen again."

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