Sudan's Bashir declares Darfur ceasefire

KHARTOUM Wed Nov 12, 2008 5:32pm EST

1 of 2. Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir addresses participants at the launch of a national initiative to bring peace to Darfur, in Khartoum, October 16, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah

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KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, facing a possible indictment by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in Darfur, announced a ceasefire in the region on Wednesday.

But an important Darfur rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement, called the announcement a "PR exercise" and vowed to fight on until a proper ceasefire deal was reached.

The move by Bashir, accused in July by the ICC chief prosecutor of masterminding a campaign of genocide in Darfur, marks the latest push by the Sudanese government to persuade the United Nations Security Council to suspend any ICC warrant.

"I hereby announce our immediate unconditional ceasefire between the armed forces and the warring factions, provided that an effective monitoring mechanism is put into action and observed by all involved parties," Bashir said in a speech.

He also pledged to launch a campaign to disarm militias in the vast region in Sudan's west, where international experts estimate that 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million have been displaced since the conflict between the government and mostly African rebels flared in 2003.

Khartoum puts the death toll at 10,000 people.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon cautiously welcomed the move though a statement by his spokeswoman noted previous attempted ceasefires had failed.

"The effectiveness of any ceasefire depends upon all parties demonstrating their commitment to a cessation of hostilities, particularly since past efforts to uphold a ceasefire in Darfur were not successful," the statement said.

In announcing the ceasefire, Bashir was adopting the recommendation of the Sudan People's Initiative -- a platform of government and opposition figures he launched last month. Rebel groups boycotted the event.

He backed the forum's recommendations to step up development in Darfur and announced plans for new hospitals, schools, water projects and electricity supplies.

Bashir was also ready to compensate people and organizations affected by the conflict, and had set aside 40 million Sudanese pounds ($18 million), with promises of more to come.

POLITICAL PRISONERS

He did not promise to release political prisoners from Darfur, or to create a separate vice-presidential post for the region, both recommendations by the forum.

The U.S. charge d'affaires to Sudan, Alberto Fernandez, described the new initiative as "a step in the right direction." "But the challenge is not what is written on the paper. The challenge is what happens on the ground," he told Reuters.

Ahmed Hussein, a spokesman for the JEM rebels, said Bashir was trying "to fool everybody" with his ceasefire proposal.

JEM was not against a ceasefire, but a truce needed serious talks involving U.N. and African Union mediators.

"If the AU and U.N. mediators want to engage the conflicting parties together for a ceasefire, we are ready to discuss it," he told Reuters by telephone from London.

The under-manned U.N./AU peacekeeping force UNAMID has not been able to secure the vast Darfur region. It has 11,000 people in Darfur, well short of its promised 26,000 personnel.

Suleiman Sandal, the deputy general commander of JEM, told Reuters a deal with Bashir should also guarantee the rights of the people of Darfur to share power and wealth.

Several ceasefires have failed in Darfur, including a 2006 deal between the government and a faction of the rebel Sudan Liberation Army.

"We don't need another ceasefire. We just need them to deliver on what they have agreed to in the past," Abdel Wahed Mohamed Ahmed al-Nur, leader of another SLA faction, told Reuters by phone from Paris.

Fouad Hikmat of the International Crisis Group think-tank described Bashir's initiative as "very positive" but said the government faced a credibility gap with the rebel movements.

Gamal Nkrumah, an expert on African affairs in Cairo, said Bashir's announcement was "window dressing."

"He is doing so because he is under international pressure."

(Additional reporting by Alaa Shahine, and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

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