Darfur's most influential rebel leader has accused the Sudanese government of trying to sabotage the deployment of a United Nations peacekeeping force by burning down a military base used by African Union soldiers and killing 10 troops. The violence flared ahead of internationally-mediated peace talks.
Abdul Wahid al-Nur, the leader of the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army, has steadfastly refused appeals from international mediators to attend negotiations in Libya at the end of this month. He insists that a robust UN force, which will replace a weak and poorly equipped African mission, must be deployed first.
Last week's attack on the AU base at Haskanita was presumed to be a raid by Darfuri militants. But Mr Nur, based in Paris, condemned the attack and said his group was co-operating with the investigation, adding: "Those who did it are criminal.
"This was an attack by the Khartoum government and [allied Janjaweed] militias to send a message to the international community not to send troops," Mr Nur told The Independent. "But all Darfuris want this UN force to protect them."
Meanwhile, the Sudanese air force was accused by the AU yesterday of bombing a town held by a breakaway SLA faction on Monday, leaving 48 people injured.
Mr Nur is no stranger to physical danger. Standing in a central Paris square, he points to his elbow smashed by a Janjaweed bullet and lifts his shirt to show the scar where another bullet pierced his side. Our interview was organised amid cloak-and-dagger secrecy, with the meeting place conveyed by text message.
He is facing down intense political and psychological pressure from the international community, confronting a steady stream of foreign visitors as they attempt to persuade him to attend the Darfur talks in Libya, after he boycotted the last round in Tanzania.
He shrugs off threats – most recently voiced by Lord Malloch Brown, the British minister for Africa – that he will be shut out of the peace process altogether or targeted by sanctions if he maintains his refusal to travel to Libya for the summit starting on 27 October. "There is no sanction worse than all my people being killed, or raped or burned," he says.
His message is the same to all of the envoys. He will not attend any peace talks until a UN force is deployed in Darfur and "will never go to Libya", which is part of the problem, he says.
As leader of the largest political faction, Mr Nur holds the key to a solution to the Darfur conflict, which has left two million people homeless and 200,000 dead since the Islamist government unleashed a scorched-earth campaign to crush a rebellion in 2003. Fighting intensified again following a UN decision last July to dispatch a 26,000-strong force to bolster the African Union mission. Yesterday, the Foreign Office in London said the renewed attacks were unlikely to derail the Libya talks or the expected arrival of the UN force next year. "We always knew we were going into a hostile environment," said a spokeswoman.
Two weeks ago, a British envoy travelled to Paris, where Mr Nur has been for nine months. Michael O'Neill followed in the footsteps of the US special representative for Sudan, Andrew Natsios, and the head of the UN peacekeeping department, Jean-Marie Guéhenno. The UN and AU mediators, Jan Eliasson and Salim Ahmed Salim, have also held talks with Mr Nur.
"All of them want to convince me to negotiate," he says. "They want me to go to Libya. I gave them my point of view. For me, peace and a democratic state will not come this way but it will only prolong the conflict.
"I want to thank Gordon Brown, Nicolas Sarkozy and President Bush for their clear statements. But I have one request: please send the UN force on the ground to stop the rapes and the killing."
Mr Nur – who refused to sign the Abuja peace accords last year, earning the nickname "Mr No" from furious international mediators – says he is not opposed to negotiations as such. But he argues that to hold talks without security is putting the cart before the horse. He also accuses the "outlaw" Sudanese government of reneging on past agreements. "I don't trust them," he says. "We must have the force on the ground, disarm the Janjaweed and remove the settlers, then we can negotiate – because I will not compromise on my people's security. While we are negotiating, they are killing our people – I'm not going to repeat that, ever."
Mr Nur, a 39-year-old lawyer who founded the SLM while studying at Khartoum University in 1992, is promoting a three-step process he hopes will result in a "secular, democratic, liberal, united Sudan". First, he says, there must be "conflict suspension", with the UN deployment, the disarming of militias and an end to the government bombings. That would create a "conducive environment" for negotiations that would address the root cause of the conflict and lead to the third stage of peace-building. However, he stresses, the SLM must agree the venue, the time and the mediator.
Mr Nur has bitter experience of internationally-brokered talks. When he balked at the Abuja deal in May last year, which was signed by only one rebel group, he was ejected from a hotel when the AU refused to pay his bill. "They still have my luggage at the hotel," he says.Reuse content