Darfur Peace Talks Go Ahead Without Crucial Leaders

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Agence France Presse

Darfur Peace Talks Go Ahead Without Crucial Leaders

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SIRTE, Libya - Negotiators working to end four years of violence in the western Sudanese region of Darfur ploughed on Sunday despite predictions of failure by host Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi.1028 04

Although the Sudanese government declared a unilateral ceasefire at the start of the meeting on Saturday, key rebel groups have boycotted the talks in the Mediterranean city of Sirte sponsored by the African Union and United Nations.

"We can't talk about success or failure at this stage. The most important thing is that the process has begun," said AU spokesman Noureddine Mezni.

The process "will not take days or even weeks," he told AFP, adding that chief negotiators, the UN's Taye Zerihoun and the AU's Sam Ibok, still hope to bring the boycotting rebel factions to the table.

"We will now begin the process of planning the way forward," AU envoy to Darfur Salim Ahmed Salim told reporters. "The next step will be how to create the necessary conditions which will enable the process of negotiations to start.

"We should not try to put fixed deadlines but at the same time we cannot afford an endless process," he said.

Addressing the opening of the conference, Kadhafi said the absent Sudan Liberation Movement/Army and the Justice and Equality Movement were "fundamental" to peace in Darfur.

"I consider their leaders to be my sons, even if they are disobedient, but without them we cannot make peace.

"I see that this conference must stop here," he said, before launching a broadside against the talks' sponsors, saying the UN and AU were not competent bodies to resolve "a tribal conflict".

UN special envoy to Darfur Jan Eliasson, played down the impact of Kadhafi's speech, defending the choice of venue contested by many rebels.

"Colonel Kadhafi always has very imaginative and wide-reaching analysis. It is the privilege of the host country to use this occasion to give the philosophy of the direction of this leader," Eliasson said.

Libya has "arranged a number of details for this meeting which are very crucial," he added.

The conference opened with a warning from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that rebel leaders who stayed away from the talks had much to lose.

"I am disappointed that some movement leaders have chosen to stay away from Sirte today. To them, I wish to say that the door remains open, but that if they continue to stay away, there is much they stand to lose," said a message from Ban delivered by Eliasson.

"The UN and AU believe that all Darfurians should be represented, and hope that they will be," he added.

AU chief Alpha Omar Konare said the rebels' refusal to join the talks "could be likened to an act of war".

Even before Kadhafi's comments, the absence of most rebel groups had cast a pall over the bid to end slaughter which is estimated to have killed 200,000 in four years and displaced two million. Khartoum puts the death toll much lower.

Six rebel groups have turned up in Sirte but have sent "second rank" representatives with little power, acknowledged one UN diplomat.

Among the rebels attending are two JEM sub-groups -- that of Abu Garda and of Lazraq -- as well as the Group of 19. The National Movement for Reform and Development and the United Revolutionary Forces Front have also sent envoys to the meeting in Sirte, some 600 kilometres (370 miles) east of Tripoli.

Envoys from the UN, AU, United States, China and the Arab League are attending the talks.

Sudan's government, whose forces and Janjaweed militia allies are blamed for most of the violence, has sent a large political delegation to talks -- around some 30 ministers and officials.

Copyright © AFP 2007

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