Rebels sign Darfur peace deal after two years of talks
|The Guardian, 06 Mai 2006|
International efforts to end three years of conflict in Darfur paid dividends yesterday when the biggest rebel movement agreed to sign a peace settlement with the Sudanese government.
Mediators applauded and embraced as two years of talks in Abuja, Nigeria, finally produced an agreement. The deal will raise hopes of ending a conflict that has displaced more than 2 million people.
However, two smaller rebel groups ignored frantic efforts by British and United States mediators to get them to accept the deal, casting doubt on its workability.
After all-night talks in the Nigerian capital, Minni Arcua Minnawi, head of the main faction of the Sudan Liberation Movement, said: "I accept this deal with some reservations concerning the power-sharing."
With the talks seemingly on the verge of collapse only hours before, the rebel group's decision was an important breakthrough for the negotiators, who included Hilary Benn, the international development secretary, and the US deputy secretary of state, Robert Zoellick.
Mr Zoellick said the deal could mark "a very important day of hope and opportunity for the poor people of Darfur", but stressed that it had to be put into practice.
Away from the handshakes in Abuja, the United Nations humanitarian chief, Jan Egeland, warned that international aid efforts in Darfur were being "swept away by increased violence by all sides".
While Khartoum had agreed - also with reservations - to sign the draft peace deal shortly before the April 30 deadline set by the African Union (AU), the three rebels groups had held out for more concessions.
Two subsequent 48-hour deadlines passed without success. Western diplomats reworked the draft to try to appease the rebels, and Mr Minnawi's faction is understood to have been swayed by concessions allowing for more of his militia to be integrated into the national army. A government offensive in south Darfur, which has placed his forces under intense pressure, may also have influenced the decision to sign, say analysts.
Earlier, the Justice and Equality Movement and a separate, smaller rebel faction, led by Abdel Wahed Nur, rejected the amended deal, citing a range of objections over power-sharing. Last night, AU negotiators were trying to get them on board.
The Darfur rebels took up arms against Sudan's Arab-dominated government in 2003, protesting about years of marginalisation and neglect. Khartoum responded by arming militias from Arab tribes, known as Janjaweed, and encouraging them to attack their mainly black neighbours. Government aircraft provided backup as thousands of villages were destroyed. More than 2.4 million people fled their homes, and 180,000 or more have died as a result of the conflict.
The peace settlement provides for a ceasefire and the disarmament of the Janjaweed. Rebel factions would also have the majority in Darfur's regional legislatures, although their demand for a new national vice-presidential post has not been met.
Following yesterday's breakthrough, Abdulrahman Zuma, a government spokesman, said: "The deal is peace. I think that the victory today is for Sudan." He added that the way was now clear for UN troops to replace AU peacekeepers - a move Khartoum had previously opposed.
Suliman Baldo, Africa programme director for the International Crisis Group, said the peace deal was significant, but added: "We should not be too optimistic. The government and rebel factions have signed several agreements before and not lived up to them. This one is more comprehensive and complex, but it is short on details about implementation."