After meetings with the Government and the main rebel groups, the United Nations and African Union envoys for the Darfur peace process said they are hopeful that talks aimed at ending the conflict in the war-wracked Sudanese region can reconvene soon.
The UN's Jan Eliasson and his AU counterpart Salim Ahmed Salim have just wrapped up a weeklong visit to the country in an effort to infuse new momentum into the stalled peace process.
"Our overall impression is that there seems to be cause for some degree of hope and optimism," Mr. Salim told reporters in the capital, Khartoum, on Saturday, referring to the prospects for re-launching the talks that began in Sirte, Libya, in late October.
The visit marks the latest efforts by the mediators to broker a comprehensive peace accord to quell the violence and humanitarian suffering in Darfur, where more than 200,000 people have been killed and at least 2.2 million others displaced since rebels began fighting Government forces and allied militia known as the Janjaweed in 2003.
The UN and AU have deployed a joint peacekeeping operation in Darfur, known as UNAMID, in a bid to stop the fighting between Government and rebel forces.
Mr. Salim recalled that substantive talks were put on hold following Sirte to give the various movements an opportunity consult among themselves, coordinate within their ranks and to work towards unification.
"We are gratified to note that these months have been used well by the Movements, at least by some of them, to deepen that consultation and to provide some degree of unity," he reported after having met with several of the groups.
He said there are now "five main groups which we have to deal with," namely the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) Unity, the United Resistance Front, the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) group led by Abdul Wahid, the Abdul Shafie group and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) led by Khalil Ibrahim.
The envoy emphasized that "the time is right" for the movements to prepare themselves for the substantive negotiations. "We believe this is in the interest not only of the peace process, but more importantly in the interest of the people of Darfur itself."
Mr. Eliasson noted that two of the five groups have expressed their commitment to the peace process and to attending "pre-negotiations" talks, to be held in about six weeks' time, ahead of a resumption of direct discussions with the Sudanese Government.
He added that progress will ultimately depend on the political will of the parties to move ahead with negotiations leading to peaceful resolution of the conflict. "This is a challenge to prove that there is a political will to move ahead and I hope the parties accept this challenge."
The envoys also voiced concern about the worsening security situation in Darfur, and specifically about the deteriorating relations between Chad and Sudan. "The prospects for peace in Darfur will very much be enhanced if there is normalisation of relations between Sudan and Chad," said Mr. Salim.
Mr. Eliasson stressed the need for a decrease in violence if further talks are to prove successful. "We have therefore urged all parties to exercise maximum restraint, and create that climate necessary for productive talks."