The top United Nations envoy for Sudan today expressed cautious optimism that the situation in strife-torn Darfur is beginning to stabilize, and that one of the main rebel groups waging a bloody two-year battle in the region against the Khartoum Government and its allied militia is prepared to continue recently postponed peace talks.
“I have seen improvements in terms of far less breaches of the ceasefire agreement, more commitment to political talks…step-by-step progress and the trends show that optimism is warranted,” Jan Pronk, head of the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) told reporters on his just-concluded two day visit to Darfur, where the 28-month-old civil war has killed nearly 180,000 people and driven more than 2 million from their homes.
Mr. Pronk acknowledged a UNMIS report yesterday that widespread looting was continuing in Darfur, but stressed that there would always be those that would take advantage of any opportunity to stoke tensions. He was also concerned that the huge amounts of money donors have poured into Darfur since 2003 would dwindle in the coming year as new challenges on the African continent emerged.
Still, he stood by his optimism for steady progress overall “given the indications that show the situation improving and stable.”
The main focus of Mr. Pronk’s visit was to follow up on his earlier meetings with the commanders of the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM), one of Darfur's two main rebel factions – the other is the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) – to discuss ways to keep the peace process on track following the signing of a preliminary agreement with the Government in July aimed at ending the fighting.
On the African Union-led peace talks which were suspended after the accord was reached but set to restart in late August, Mr. Pronk said that the SLM commanders were more serious and more united in their decision to continue the talks. “They have proposed a postponement to the talks to enable them to convene and organize themselves and be more united and to prepare an agenda.”
Recalling that the previous round of talks had ended on a positive note, it was his view that there should now be “lengthy and substantial” talks, perhaps two more rounds after this short postponement. “Then they hold their convention and then hold the final seventh round of talks somewhere around October to be in time for the date I suggested of the end of the year for the signing of a comprehensive peace agreement for this area,” he said.
The Darfur conflict erupted in February 2003 when the two rebel groups demanded an end to economic marginalisation and sought power-sharing within the Sudanese state.