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Dialogue with Sudan government, rebels needed: U.S. envoy

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.S. special envoy to Sudan has vowed to step up engagement with both Khartoum and rebels to help bring peace to Darfur, a strategy the commanding peacekeeper says has already won over some of the rebels.

The results of a U.S. government policy review on Sudan are expected to be released later this month. One of the key elements of the review is how to end the crisis in Darfur where the U.N. says up to 300,000 people have died since 2003, compared to Khartoum’s official death toll of 10,000.

President Barack Obama’s special envoy to Sudan, retired Air Force General Scott Gration, said in an interview with Reuters on Thursday his priorities include bringing peace to Darfur and ending the humanitarian crisis in the remote and vast region of western Sudan.

He also wants to ensure that a fragile 2005 peace agreement that ended a 22-year civil war between Sudan’s Muslim North and mostly Christian South is fully implemented and put an end to what he said was Sudan’s “proxy war” with neighboring Chad.

Gration said he was working hard “to unify the (Darfur) rebels so that there is a spokesman for that group.” He is also trying to unify the Darfur diaspora and refugee communities so that they can play a role in peace talks in Doha.

U.N. officials have repeatedly warned that the fragmentation of rebel movements in Darfur into smaller groups is one of the reasons the peace process has stalled.

General Martin Luther Agwai, outgoing commander of the joint U.N.-African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur (UNAMID), told reporters at U.N. headquarters that Gration’s engagement with rebels has already yielded positive results.

Rebel groups that had previously placed difficult conditions on their attendance at peace talks “have now decided to start coming to the table to negotiate and talk,” he said.

To ease tensions between Sudan and Chad, and to ensure the 2005 north-south peace agreement (CPA) is implemented, Gration said it was vital to talk with the Janjaweed -- Arab militiamen backed by Khartoum -- and the Sudanese and other governments.

To achieve this, he said, “it takes dialogue with the rebels, it takes dialogue with ... leaders in the region and it certainly takes dialogue with the government of Sudan.”


Some analysts say Gration is focusing more on engagement with Khartoum and the rebels than Richard Williamson, his predecessor under George W. Bush. Fabienne Hara of the International Crisis Group said it was a “welcome change.”

Agwai said the security situation in Darfur had improved somewhat and that far fewer people were dying each month in the refugee camps. But he said easing U.S. sanctions against Sudan would “help a lot in the overall peace process in Darfur.”

Gration said he opposed relaxing U.S. sanctions against the government of Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir and his military. He said remarks he made to U.S. lawmakers last week -- that Washington could “unwind” some sanctions against Sudan -- had been misunderstood.

He said the only kinds of sanctions that should be amended are those preventing the United States from sending heavy machinery and other equipment to develop southern Sudan ahead of a 2011 referendum on whether to secede from the north.

Agwai said a March decision by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague to indict Bashir for crimes against humanity in Darfur was a “big blow” for UNAMID and the peace process, though the backlash was not as bad as he had feared.

Gration said he supported the indictment of Bashir but that he needed to engage Khartoum to help bring peace to Sudan.

“We also have a mandate to save lives and bring peace to the Darfur region and also to implement the CPA. This is a mandate that requires us to have a dialogue, so that’s what we’re doing right now,” he said. “But this does not in any way lessen our commitment to making sure that justice is done.”

Editing by Cynthia Osterman