Darfur talks go on past deadline


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Amid intense pressure to halt the three-year conflict in Darfur, Sudanese government negotiators and Darfur rebels continued last-ditch negotiations early today in a bid to reach an accord after a midnight deadline to end peace talks passed.

African Union officials mediating the talks in Nigeria's capital, Abuja, had said earlier that if the talks failed there would be no major extension to the deadline, already pushed back twice.

Hopes rose for a deal yesterday after rebel negotiators said the most recent draft agreement had met key concerns, including a demand for thousands of rebel fighters to be integrated into Sudan's security and police forces.

A peace accord is considered urgent because of Darfur's catastrophic humanitarian situation and the approach of the rainy season, when delivery of aid is difficult.

Late yesterday, negotiators from both sides met with Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo and the AU chairman, Congolese President Denis Sassou Nguesso.

After two years of stalemated negotiations and violations of a 2004 cease-fire, both sides have been subject to intense pressure from the United States and Britain, who sent envoys to the peace talks this week to help mediate a compromise.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick and British Development Secretary Hilary Benn flew to Abuja to seek an end to a conflict that the United States says has resulted in genocide against non-Arabs in Darfur by the Sudanese government and allied militias.

Six previous rounds of peace talks brokered by the African Union have stumbled. As two deadlines passed in recent days, African Union and Western officials tried to push the sides toward a swift agreement, saying there was no point in significantly extending the talks for a third time.

The conflict began in 2003 when rebels in Darfur rose up over poor resources and services in the area. The government of Sudan responded by backing militias known as janjaweed, who attacked and burned villages across the desert region in western Sudan, killing and raping civilians. The government has denied arming the militias.

Estimates of the dead and displaced during the conflict vary, with some reports indicating that 180,000 people may have died as a result of the conflict and more than 2 million may have been forced to flee their homes.

The Sudanese government this week accepted an earlier deal drafted by the AU requiring it to disarm militias responsible for many of the attacks on civilians in Darfur, to integrate some rebels into the Sudanese military and to spend $200 million a year on rebuilding the region.

But rebel negotiators were dismissive of the proposal, saying that the draft met none of their key demands and fell short of the power- and wealth-sharing arrangements they had sought. The rebels also demanded the establishment of a post of second vice president responsible for Darfur, a demand that has not been met.

In recent days the United States has pushed both sides to give ground and helped draft a deal that rebels reportedly found more acceptable, raising hopes for peace in Darfur, an arid region the size of France in western Sudan.

The deal called for integrating 4,000 rebels in the Sudanese army, 1,000 into the police and providing training for another 1,000.

International pressure has intensified, particularly toward the rebels, with the European Union and others calling for them to sign a deal to end civilian suffering.

A European Union statement said it would be irresponsible to pass up the chance for peace.

Robin Dixon writes for the Los Angeles Times

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