ARUSHA, Tanzania (Reuters) - Darfur rebel factions began African Union-United Nations sponsored negotiations on Friday aimed at resolving their differences ahead of peace talks with the Sudanese government.
The talks to end the four-year conflict in western Sudan have taken on a new importance since the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday approved the deployment of 26,000 peacekeeping troops and police to stem the bloodshed in Darfur.
Darfur rebels split into about a dozen groups are meeting to work out a single negotiating position for peace talks with the government, and a date and venue for the negotiations.
Members of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) arrived in the Tanzanian resort town of Arusha on Friday, as did some negotiators with factions of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA).
“I think there is no doubt that all the groups want negotiations,” AU Darfur envoy Salim Ahmed Salim told reporters. “The only problem is that sometimes some of them have their own pre-conditions ... if everyone wants to start putting pre-conditions, you’ll have no meetings whatsoever.”
The meeting formally opened late on Friday with brief statements after an afternoon of consultations with a handful of rebel negotiators who had arrived.
AU officials said a handful of military field commanders were being flown to Arusha from Darfur late on Friday. Salim said no date for the future rebel-government talks had been set but he expected them within “about two months”.
“These are informal consultations that we hope will open the way to the coming consultations and we hope to reach common ground,” JEM spokesman Jamali Hassan Jelaladin said.
Underscoring the difficulty of unifying the rebel elements, the African Union accused the Sudan Liberation Army/Movement on Thursday of trying to intimidate peacekeepers in El Fasher by sending “20 heavily armed elements” to the front gate of the AU mission’s forward headquarters.
The conflict in Darfur erupted in early 2003 when mostly non-Arab rebels took up arms against the Khartoum government, accusing it of neglect. The government responded by arming mostly Arab militias known as Janjaweed to attack the rebels.
Independent experts say 200,000 people have died as a result of the conflict and 2.5 million have been displaced. Sudan says only 9,000 have been killed.
A May 2006 peace pact with the government was signed by only one rebel faction.
Sudan offered the rebels a concession on Wednesday, saying it would consider allowing elderly SLA humanitarian aid coordinator Suleiman Jamous to leave hospital without threat of arrest once the Arusha talks were under way.
Jamous is widely credited with helping to stop violence against aid workers, and analysts say he offers the best hope of uniting the political and military leadership of the splintered rebel groups, without which there is little chance of success.
U.N. Darfur envoy Jan Eliasson told Reuters both he and the AU’s Salim had asked Sudan to free Jamous. Salim said it was not clear whether Jamous would come to Arusha.
Sudan Liberation Movement leader Abdel Wahed Mohamed el-Nur, whose blessing analysts say will be needed for any peace initiative to succeed, has already refused to attend the talks.
“There is an empty seat in the room. I regret very much that our brother Abdel Wahed el-Nur is not here,” Salim told the opening session.
Additional reporting by Lillian Urio and Njua Maina