The United Nations Special Envoy to Darfur said today that he hopes as many rebel leaders as possible from the war-torn Sudanese region will eventually take part in landmark peace talks starting on Saturday, even though some of the splintering rebel forces are already signalling they will not attend.
Jan Eliasson told reporters that it was still not clear exactly how many rebel leaders will participate in the talks in Sirte, Libya, but he warned that the stakes for the people of Darfur were too high for them to turn down the invitation.
“We may have a very dangerous development if we miss this opportunity,” he said, noting that the Sudanese Government, the country’s neighbours, representatives of Darfurian civil society and some local tribal leaders have all said they are ready and willing to take part.
“We are now, of course, coming close to the moment of truth. I would say [it’s] the moment of hope for Darfur.”
He stressed that substantive negotiations on many of the most contentious issues, such as power-sharing and control of land, will not take place immediately, allowing the rebel groups time to hold consultations among themselves on the sidelines of the Sirte talks.
But he said that further delays would only lengthen the suffering in Darfur, where more than 200,000 people have been killed and at least 2.2 million others forced to flee their homes since 2003 because of fighting between rebels, Government forces and allied militia known as the Janjaweed.
The Security Council has authorized the creation of a hybrid UN-African Union peacekeeping force, to be known as UNAMID, to try to quell the violence.
The lead-up to the talks in Sirte, which are being co-convened by Mr. Eliasson and his AU counterpart, Salim Ahmed Salim, have been complicated by the proliferation of rebel movements as many of the existing groups, including the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), splinter into smaller factions.
Speaking today by videoconference from Asmara, Eritrea, where he has been meeting with senior Government officials to discuss preparations for the negotiations, Mr. Eliasson said there is “very little hope” that rebel leader Abdul Wahid el-Nur will attend, while Khalil Ibrahim of the JEM has also asked for the talks to be delayed. But he said he was still hopeful that other rebel leaders would join the Sirte talks later.
Mr. Eliasson said obtaining a formal cessation of hostilities would be a priority of the talks, while arrangements for the return of displaced people can also be given immediate attention. He expects the initial discussions in Sirte will focus on issues of security and wealth-sharing.
After hearing a closed-door briefing from Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the Sirte talks, the Security Council issued a presidential statement calling on all parties to engage fully and constructively in the talks and to first agree to a cessation of hostilities.
“The Council underlines its willingness to take action against any party that seeks to undermine the peace process, including by failing to respect such a cessation of hostilities or by impeding the talks, peacekeeping or humanitarian aid,” the statement noted.
It added that the 15-member body was deeply concerned about delays in the deployment of UNAMID, and urged Member States to make available the aviation and ground transport units still required for the mission.
The Special Envoy said the preparations for the talks had been adversely affected by the recent spike in violence in Darfur, particularly the deadly attack last month against AU peacekeepers in the town of Haskanita.
Frustration is growing in the camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs), he said, with many residents having spent four years there and some younger IDPs becoming increasingly radicalized. Violence in the camps is rising and arms are starting to flow in.
The strained relationship in the National Unity Government, formed in the wake of the end of the separate north-south civil war in Sudan, was also adding to the difficulties, Mr. Eliasson said.
In his latest report on the implementation of the January 2005 comprehensive peace agreement that ended that war, Mr. Ban says recent events underline the fragility of the pact and the failure to implement some of its key provisions.
Earlier this month, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) – the former southern rebel group – suspended its participation in the Government, although it is now holding talks with the National Congress Party on how to resolve their impasse.
Mr. Ban urges all sides to implement their commitments under the agreement, calling on the leaders to show political courage.
“While the conflict in Darfur undoubtedly had consequences for the rest of the country, we must not lose sight of the fact that the comprehensive peace agreement remains critical to long-lasting peace throughout the Sudan,” the Secretary-General writes.