KHARTOUM, Sudan, March 21 -- Sudan's first vice president said foreign nations must put more political pressure on Sudanese rebel groups to lay down their guns before lasting peace can be achieved in the war-shattered western region of Darfur.
In a two-hour interview with The Washington Post, Ali Uthman Muhammad Taha said his government had received an unfair share of the blame for the war in Darfur, which has displaced 2 million villagers and killed tens of thousands in the past two years, mostly through hunger and disease.
Vice President Taha: "This was not genocide, but an unfortunate internal conflict."
(Virginia Mayo -- AP)
_____Crisis in Sudan_____
Q&A: Darfur A brief explanation of the issues and current humanitarian situation in Western Sudan.
Photos: Continuing Crisis
Photos: Sudan's Rebels
In Rebuilding Sudan, Birth Often Brings Suffering and Death (The Washington Post, Mar 4, 2005)
A Former Rebel's Search for Sudanese Identity (The Washington Post, Feb 11, 2005)
Sudan Offers War Crimes Trials (The Washington Post, Feb 9, 2005)
Lack of Access Muddies Death Toll in Darfur (The Washington Post, Feb 8, 2005)
Girls From Sudan's War Now Fight to Learn (The Washington Post, Feb 4, 2005)
"We need a strong, unequivocal message that the rebels have to honor the cease-fire," said Taha, who heads a government task force aimed at ending the Darfur crisis and who is considered by many to be the most powerful man in Sudan, partly because he helped negotiate a peace deal in a separate conflict in the country's south.
The rebels in Darfur "started this war by attacking police stations and the airport. . . . What is needed at the moment is for them to have pressure from Europe and the U.S. to stop," Taha said.
In his most extensive remarks yet on Darfur, the vice president reiterated statements by Sudanese authorities denying international allegations of genocide in the region. The Bush administration and the U.S. Congress have said the widespread deaths there amounted to genocide. A U.N. commission stopped short of using the term but found that war crimes and crimes against humanity had been committed.
"We do understand and appreciate people having sympathy with the victims of Darfur," said Taha, 57, who called the situation a "sad chapter" in Sudan's history. But he added: "This was not genocide, but an unfortunate internal conflict . . . that has nothing to do with ethnic cleansing. We urge people to see the difference between the innocents caught in the middle and the rebels who are escalating their claims to gain sympathy."
Taha's comments came two months after a peace accord was signed in the conflict between the Khartoum government, represented by Taha, and the Sudan People's Liberation Army, a rebel group in southern Sudan led by John Garang. That agreement gave religious and political autonomy to the southern region.
Taha said he was optimistic about peace lasting in the south. He called the pact "a real landmark" in Sudan's recent history and said it "paves the way for a new horizon for the Sudanese people."
The two-decade civil war, which pitted the Islamic government against rebels based in the mostly animist and Christian south, left 2 million people dead, primarily from famine and disease. Under the accord, which was backed by the Bush administration, the south will have a six-year period of self-rule, then vote on whether to remain part of Sudan. The agreement also calls for Garang to replace Taha as first vice president.
The conflict in Darfur broke out in early 2003 when two largely black African rebel groups attacked police stations and military outposts to protest what they called discrimination by the mostly Arab governing elite. The United Nations and human rights groups accuse the government of arming and supporting militiamen, called the Janjaweed, to crush the rebellion, and of bombing villages where rebel supporters were said to be hiding.
Taha, interviewed in the national palace, called the Janjaweed bandits and said they were beyond the government's immediate control. He said that those who broke the law or committed atrocities would be punished, but that the rebels had to stop fighting and turn in their arms before the government could pursue the Janjaweed.
"In Darfur, there has been a huge influx of weapons from the Chad conflict, from instability in the Central African Republic and from the south of Sudan," Taha said. "This phenomenon of lawlessness and the habit of looting and attacking have made conditions very tough."
He said the report issued earlier this year by the U.N. commission of inquiry, which found that war crimes and crimes against humanity had been committed in Darfur, was based on "weak evidence" and "political judgments, rather than legal findings."
The Security Council is considering whether to impose economic sanctions on Sudan because of the Darfur conflict. Taha said that such sanctions could exacerbate the crisis, adding that the government did not have enough money to develop the region.
He said the Darfur conflict had historical roots and had not been planned by the government. There had been tensions and periodic violence among regional tribes for decades over access to water and grazing areas, he said. Taha said he planned to establish panels to address the basic causes of the conflict.
Taha said he wanted to see the Darfur issue resolved quickly. The government was willing to be patient in seeking peace with the rebels, he said, and has been practicing a policy of "self-restraint" in fighting them. However, he said, Sudan would not agree to U.N. appeals for a "no-fly" zone over Darfur.
Taha visited Darfur in late 2002 to discuss the needs of the local populace. He said the visitors were told that "there was need of fresh water, health care and primary schooling. . . . We agreed with that."
But just a few months later, Taha added, "the response was shooting by the rebels" and "other tribes felt insecure as well." The government had "no intent to go on a military track," he said, "but to a certain degree we had to combat rebel attacks."
He said there had been a misunderstanding by critics who accused the government of arming the Janjaweed. He said officials had called up the Popular Defense Forces, a government-backed paramilitary group, and that volunteers who responded "were individuals from different parts, not only the Arabs."