Bush urges action on Darfur talks

Sudan's leader is asked to send envoy back

May 03, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

KHARTOUM, Sudan --President Bush urged Sudanese President Omar el-Bashir yesterday to send a senior representative back to peace talks in Nigeria that are intended to end the carnage in the Darfur region.

Meanwhile, international pressure on the government of Sudan and the Darfur rebels to reach an agreement is increasing.

At the United Nations, Basile Ikouebe of the Republic of the Congo, president of the Security Council this month, announced that the leaders of Congo, South Africa, Nigeria, Senegal and Egypt "and possibly others" would gather soon in Abuja, Nigeria, where the talks are being held, to press for an agreement.

In Abuja, Robert B. Zoellick, the U.S. deputy secretary of state, was joined by senior officials from Britain, Canada and the European Union in meetings with all parties to the talks. The meetings lasted through the day. Zoellick said he told everyone that "time is short; it's time to close."

African Union mediators gave the rebels and the government a proposed draft peace agreement April 25. Since then, the mediators have seemed reluctant to amend it despite pleas from rebels groups that it be changed to address their concerns.

Zoellick said the African Union mediators had told him that they intended to extend the talks by at least a day beyond the deadline of midnight last night. But with Bush's phone call and a stream of national leaders and diplomats from around the world arriving in Abuja, the pressure on the Sudanese government and the rebels is more intense than at any previous time in the three years of the deadly Darfur conflict.

Rebel leader Ahmed Tugod Lissan, chief negotiator for the Justice and Equality Movement, said international pressure, no matter how intense, would not lead his group to sign the agreement.

"We have come under a lot of pressure," he said. "But now the international community realizes this is an impossible document for us to sign."

Lissan said the meeting with Zoellick was constructive and focused on critical issues, including the creation of a state government controlled by the political wings of rebel groups.

"He listened carefully to us about the fears of the movements about this document and said he would present them to the mediation team," Lissan said.

On Sunday, the mediators extended the deadline by 48 hours, to midnight last night, after the Sudanese government said it would accept the agreement but rebel leaders said they had serious reservations.

The mediators said the latest extension, to accommodate the African leaders and others on their way to Abuja, would be short.

The main problem with the proposal the rebel groups mentioned, Zoellick and others said, is security and disarmament. The rebels are concerned that they would be called upon to disarm before the government militias, which have terrorized the countryside for three years, have to do the same.

"After all the years of terrible bloodletting, there's not a great deal of trust," Zoellick said.

He noted that the proposed agreement had resulted from listening to both sides' concerns during almost two years of fitful negotiations.

"They are not averse to changes," Zoellick said. But now that the Sudanese government has agreed to the text, to change it the mediators "would have to bring everyone along in the process," he said.

More than 200,000 people have died since the Darfur conflict began in February 2003, and more than 3 million are homeless or dependent on international aid agencies for food.

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