By Imed Lamloum, AFP
SIRTE, Libya — A peace conference aimed at ending four years of bloodshed in Sudan’s Darfur region opened Saturday, boycotted by the main rebel groups, but with a cease-fire offer from the Khartoum government on the table. The talks were opened by the African Union special envoy for Darfur, Salim Ahmed Salim.
Before the talks opened in the Libyan town of Sirte, Khartoum’s minister of state for foreign affairs Al-Sammani al-Wasila al-Sammani told AFP said his government would announce a cease-fire in the devastated region. But the absence of most rebel groups has cast a pall over the AU-United Nations sponsored 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.
Libyan leader Moammer Gadhafi was attending the talks along with envoys from the U.N., AU, United States, China and the Arab League.
Sudan’s government, whose forces and Janjaweed militia allies are blamed for most of the violence, has sent a heavy political delegation to talks — around some 30 ministers and officials.
But eight factions from the disparate Sudan Liberation Movement/Army and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) have decided not to attend the talks, tempering initial hopes of any real breakthrough in the violence which the United States has termed “genocide.”
“The imbalance is blatant,” said one Arab diplomat, even though the United Nations special envoy for Darfur, Jan Eliasson, clung determinedly to his optimism.
“We still have hope that some of the leaders of the movements will come. The final list of participants is not completed,” Eliasson said.
Participants told AFP that several officials would address the conference but that real negotiations would be unlikely to start before Sunday.
Sudan’s government, which has delayed the planned deployment of a hybrid AU-U.N. peace force, has already offered several times to call a cease-fire. Last month, Sudanese President Omar al Beshir, before meeting Pope Benedict said: “We stated that we are prepared for a cease-fire for the start of negotiations in order to create a positive climate conducive to a positive end to the negotiations.”
Speaking on the eve of the planned talks, Eliasson said the peace talks were an “irreversible process” and represented “a very important step towards a political settlement.”
An African Union force has been deployed in Darfur as peacekeepers but was woefully undermanned and ill-equipped. Efforts to deploy the hybrid AU-U.N. force have been delayed with objections from Khartoum and logistical difficulties.
U.N. officials say the U.N.-AU force will comprise more than 19,000 military personnel, over 6,000 police and over 5,500 civilians, but will not be fully deployed until well into next year.
Some diplomats fear that Saturday’s meeting threatens to echo one held in Abuja, Nigeria, in 2006, when just one rebel movement adhered to an agreement.
Six rebel groups have turned up in Sirte but have sent “second rank” representatives with little power, acknowledged one U.N. diplomat.
Eliasson is hoping to achieve “a commitment by the beginning of these talks to a cessation of hostilities. Whether it will be signed is another thing. We need all the relevant partners present for that.”
He added: “We will urge all parties when they begin the talks to respect the need for a cessation of hostilities. In my book, you cannot talk and fight at the same time.”
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 kilometers (370 miles) east of Tripoli.
AU spokesman Nureddine Mezni offered reasons for hope that more rebels might turn up — saying the talks may last “for days, indeed for weeks.”