Sudanese, Rebels Sign Peace Plan For Darfur

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 6, 2006

With a prod from the United States, the government of Sudan and the biggest Darfur rebel faction signed a complex peace plan yesterday that diplomats and experts said would require careful implementation to ensure an end to a conflict that has left as many as 450,000 people dead and 2 million homeless.

Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick, who pushed the parties to an agreement during three days and nights of almost continuous negotiations in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, warned of the tough task ahead in a conference call with reporters.

"Do I hope there will be a significant decline in violence? Yes. Can I be certain? No," he said. The agreement is "an opportunity for peace," but Darfur "is going to remain a dangerous place."

The peace agreement seeks to dismantle marauding militias, fold thousands of rebel forces into the national army and pave the way to wealth and power-sharing between the central government and an impoverished area the size of France. Minni Minnawi, the leader of the Sudan Liberation Army, a rebel militia, signed the accord shortly after learning that his younger brother had been killed in Darfur, presumably during a firefight. Under the agreement, a cease-fire will go into effect in seven days.

Two other rebel groups -- a rival faction of the SLA and the smaller Justice and Equality Movement -- walked out of the talks, though a splinter group of one of the factions later presented a letter to mediators saying it supported the accord. Zoellick said the failure to win support from all of the rebels "certainly poses dangers," but he said he hoped the momentum generated by the agreement would persuade doubters to eventually sign on.

The conflict broke out in early 2003 when two African rebel groups attacked police stations and military outposts in Darfur. The United Nations and human rights groups accuse the Arab-led central government of supporting the militiamen, called the Janjaweed, to crush the rebellion. About 2,000 villages have been destroyed across Darfur, and critics of the agreement said it does not do enough to ensure compensation to victims. Both sides in the conflict have repeatedly broken previous agreements.

This agreement comes at a critical moment in the Darfur conflict, which is growing more chaotic, spawning more than 12 rebel groups on the lawless border between Chad and Sudan, banditry and a flood of weapons and fighters who are displacing civilians as far away as the Central African Republic.

In Chad, 60,000 people have been forced from their homes by Janjaweed incursions, along with several thousand in the Central African Republic.

Last week, the U.N. World Food Program announced that it had received only 32 percent of the $746 million in donations it had sought for its operations in Sudan. For that reason, it said, food rations to the camps would be cut in half.

U.S. officials say an accord is essential in order to persuade the Sudanese government to accept a U.N. peacekeeping force that would include logistical assistance from 400 to 500 NATO officers. The African Union currently has a 6,000-person force with a limited mandate in place. Many experts say it has been ineffective at stopping the fighting.

As the negotiations in Abuja stretched into the wee hours, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo told the rebel leaders that they would miss a historic opportunity if they did not accept the agreement.

Zoellick said that at some time between 2 and 4 a.m. Friday, he pulled out a letter from President Bush to Minnawi pledging to "strongly support" implementation of the deal and make sure anyone who broke it would be "held accountable" by the U.N. Security Council. Zoellick read the letter to the assembled gathering. One problem, he said, was that it was clear that many rebels had not read the tentative agreement and did not realize that issues they kept raising had already been addressed.

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