October 12, 2007
Diplomats brace for long talks as Darfur violence flares
A surge of vicious attacks in war-torn Darfur has left diplomats bracing themselves for months of bruising peace talks between Sudan's government and the region's rapidly splintering rebel factions.
There are just 15 days to go before Sudan is due to sit down with insurgent groups in talks brokered by the United Nations and the African Union in Libya.
But as the hours tick by, the men who should be busy preparing their briefing papers have been distracted by a series of murderous raids and counter raids, accusations and counter accusations.
Before the recent attacks, optimistic commentators said the talks could be over by December. Diplomats now say it could now take weeks just to get the talks going - to encourage groups fractured by recent violence to reunite behind common positions; to set up an effective new ceasefire during the talks, together with ways of investigating any fresh fighting; and to rebuild a modicum of trust, at least between former allies.
"Some people have said they want everything over by Christmas, but I think that is very optimistic," said one member of the international diplomatic community in Khartoum. "We're determined to stick with it for as long as it takes. The important thing is that we come out with a strong agreement at the end of it."
Many have dated the start of the recent explosion of violence to attacks by rebel factions on Adila, in south east Darfur and a government base in Wad Banda, outside the border of Darfur in Kordofan region both in August.
The assaults kicked off a string of reprisals and unrest that last week climaxed in the killing of 10 African Union peacekeepers in an attack on their base in the south eastern Darfur town of Haskanita by a large body of unidentified armed men.
Earlier this week, the picture became even more muddied after the Sudanese government was accused of attacking Muhajiriya, a town held by the one former rebel group that is supposed to be Khartoum's partner in power. The group in question - the faction of the Sudan Liberation Army led by Minni Minnawi - was the only insurgent movement to sign an earlier failed peace agreement with the government in 2006.
Many have since used the violence to write off the coming peace talks, scorning any chance of success. "Can pigs fly? No," said one international commentator when asked about the chances of the combatants reaching a peaceful resolution. "The talks are now in real jeopardy as many people in Darfur are busy burying their dead," read the regular 'Let us speak out' column in Wednesday's edition of the largely-independent Khartoum Monitor.
The US special envoy to Sudan, Andrew Natsios, told reporters on Saturday talks could fall apart if fighting did not stop ahead of negotiations. "If we do not have a ceasefire once the talks start then it's going to be hard to conduct these negotiations because every time there's an attack someone will walk out of the talks."
But senior diplomats have pointed out that, murderous as the recent attacks might have been, they could have hardly made relations between the already bitterly divided parties any worse.
Veteran UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi told Reuters over the weekend: "This is not something that has flared up out of the blue. There is a problem of violence. But this does not change anything fundamentally. These talks were going to be difficult
"This is the kind of violence that often takes place ahead of big negotiations, with people trying to take the best positions for themselves," said another observer.
Diplomats in Khartoum say the sheer weight of international pressure on Darfur will ensure some sort of talks start in Libya on Oct 27. They are determined not to repeat mistakes made in the build up to the 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement, which many feel, broke up after rebels were pressed to hard and too soon to sign up.
But many uncertainties remain.
One key rebel leader, Sudan Liberation Movement founder and chairman Abdel Wahed Mohamed el-Nur, has so far stuck to his refusal to attend the Libyan talks, demanding a list of concessions ahead of negotiations. The leader of the powerful rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) Khalil Ibrahim on Saturday said he would boycott the talks if more than two insurgent factions turn up.
And few have dared to think of what might happen if the worst happens and the Libyan talks fall apart without a resolution. "In many ways, if talks fail we will be back where we are today," said one diplomat. "The situation couldn't get much worse."
Posted by aheavens at October 12, 2007 2:43 PM
With the current state of the conflict I wish I could be more optimistic about where things are going. But I just don't see it happening. Maybe I'm being too simplistic but I see two things that make me feel this way.
1. The terms "vicious attacks" and "peace talks" don't usually work that well together.
2. With several "rebel groups" as their called running rampant I don't see how you're going to come to any conclusive agreement through talking unless it involves all of them.
Posted by: aaron at October 12, 2007 6:38 PM
"Bruising peace talks"
I think that's the first time I've seen that phrase.
It needs to become a stock saying, "bloody battle," "grinding poverty," "desperate measures."
Posted by: quixote at October 13, 2007 3:05 PM
(should have been: like "bloody battle" etc. Moral: always preview!)
Posted by: quixote at October 13, 2007 3:06 PM