Deadline passes without Darfur peace agreement

Sudan offers to accept deal, rebels balk

talks extended 48 hours at U.S. request


KHARTOUM, Sudan --Sudan's government offered to accept a potentially historic Darfur peace agreement yesterday, but two of Darfur's three main rebel groups raised last-minute objections that left the negotiations mired in confusion as a midnight deadline passed. Mediators agreed to extend the talks for 48 hours at the request of the United States.

It was unclear early today whether the extension in the feverish negotiations, supervised by the African Union at talks in Abuja, Nigeria, made it more or less likely that a deal could be reached. The talks are the most intensive yet in an effort to end the strife in Darfur, the vast region of western Sudan that is the site of what the United Nations has called the world's worst humanitarian crisis and what the Bush administration calls genocide.

By early today, the mediation group at the talks agreed to extend them until midnight tomorrow at the request of Cameron Hume, the charge d'affaires at the U.S. embassy in Khartoum, who said that significant progress had been made and that more time might allow an agreement to emerge, according to Noureddine Mezni, spokesman for the African Union negotiators.

"He asked if we can give 48 hours to the parties to allow them to bridge the gap on some issues, regarding especially the reintegration and the disarmament, plus some other issues on wealth sharing and power sharing," Mezni said. "His request was approved."

Progress in the talks was thrown into doubt late yesterday when Seif Haroun, a spokesman for one of the rebel groups, the Sudanese Liberation Army, told reporters in Abuja that "if the proposal does not include all our demands we will not sign."

At least 200,000 people have been killed and 2 million driven from their homes since 2003 in a chaotic ethnic and political conflict in Darfur, which has pitted a rebel insurgency against the Arab-dominated central government in Khartoum and its proxy tribal militias known as the janjaweed, who are fearsome marauders considered responsible for much of the killing. The strife has spilled into neighboring Chad and threatened to escalate the crisis further. The United States has placed nearly all of its hopes for a resolution of the crisis on the Abuja peace talks, and a failure there would leave the Bush administration without a viable option to end the violence in the foreseeable future.

In Washington, Robert Zoellick, the deputy secretary of state and the Bush administration's point man on Sudan policy, said that the parties had narrowed the number of issues under debate. "I am encouraged, but it is not done yet," he said.

African Union officials had said they expected at least a partial breakthrough, which could allow further talks.

Zoellick, who spent much of yesterday evening conferring by phone with American diplomats and negotiators in Abuja, said he was not terribly concerned that some of the smaller rebel factions had rejected the proposed agreement, saying these groups would have to come along if the largest faction of the Sudanese Liberation Movement, led by Minni Arcua Minnawi, did eventually agree.

Minnawi "is trying to be serious about this," Zoellick said, "with the understanding that there are still some serious difficulties, serious issues, to work through."

The largest area of disagreement, he said, centered on "the demobilization of both sides." The rebels and the government are quite wary of each other. But Zoellick said Minnawi and his aides had spent four hours last evening discussing demobilization with Hume.

Sudanese government officials said yesterday that they would accept the peace plan, but their agreement came only after it became apparent that at least some of the rebels would balk.

The proposed agreement would allow for some power and wealth sharing with political groups aligned with the rebel movements that have fought in the insurgency against the government since 2003.

"We have some reservations to the initial draft, but we have submitted our acceptance to the African Union," said Jamal Ibrahim, a government spokesman in Khartoum.

Some rebel leaders say the proposed deal fell short of their demands. The agreement does not give the Darfur groups the vice presidency they demanded and does not create a single state out of the three states in Darfur, something Darfur political and militant groups say would help reduce the region's powerlessness and marginalization.

The Darfur groups and the Sudanese government have been under enormous pressure to reach an agreement to end the squabbling that has dominated previous negotiations. The African Union presented both parties with a draft agreement Tuesday.

Should the talks fail, it is unclear what the next step might be. Officials have talked about the idea of stationing as many as 20,000 U.N. peacekeeping troops in Darfur, to replace the 7,000-member African Union force that has tried unsuccessfully to keep the peace in Darfur over the past year.

But Sudan has refused to allow in any U.N. force without a signed peace agreement, and few countries have volunteered to provide troops for the mission, even if permission is granted.

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