By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 28, 2007
SIRTE, Libya, Oct. 27 -- International envoys tried Saturday to show that peace efforts for Darfur were still on track despite the growing chaos there, opening new peace talks even in the face of a rebel boycott.
The partial refusal to attend left young and unknown rebel fighters with their faces hidden behind swaths of military-camouflage cloth filling some of the negotiating seats that envoys had intended for top leaders of the more than a dozen rebel movements now fighting in Darfur.
Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi hosted the U.N.- and African Union-backed conference just four years after the United Nations lifted sanctions against his country for alleged acts of terror.
Libya's agreement to hold the talks in Gaddafi's home town of Sirte on the country's scrubby coast, and the participation of other Mideast envoys, had signaled increasing Arab involvement in efforts to end the violence in Darfur.
But Gaddafi's opening remarks only underscored the sense that the talks were getting off to a troubled start. The best thing that foreign peacemakers and peacekeeping troops could do for Darfur was stay out of it, Gaddafi told an audience that included envoys from the United States, European Union, China and more than 10 other countries and blocs.
"I would have preferred that this conference be the last attempt by the international community to settle this conflict and let the people of Sudan settle it themselves," Gaddafi said in a slow, sonorous 48-minute monologue that went through two shifts of interpreters. While he spoke, the U.N. envoy for Darfur, Jan Eliasson, on the dais next to Gaddafi, stared at his watch and then wrenched it around and around on his wrist.
"I always say, 'Leave this problem to its own people,' " Gaddafi said. "We have nothing to do with this. It's none of our business."
Fighters from African rebel tribes in Darfur are battling troops from Sudan's predominantly Arab government and its allied militias.
The conflict is estimated to have killed 450,000 people through disease, hunger and violence since 2003. Attacks have driven another 2.5 million people from their homes in Darfur.
A 2006 power-sharing deal brokered by African and international envoys has collapsed. The three rebel movements that took part in those talks have splintered into 13. Rebel groups are fighting among themselves, as are Darfur's Arab tribes, and both sides are attacking civilians.
One rebel faction overran a camp of A.U. peacekeepers last month, killing 10 soldiers.
The United Nations and African Union are scheduled to send 26,000 troops to Darfur in January in response to steady international pressure for peace in the western Sudan region.
Mediators are eager to calm Darfur before the peacekeepers are deployed. Envoys announced the Sirte talks in September.
Rebel leaders gave varying reasons for their boycott: that rebels should resolve differences among themselves before negotiating with Sudan's government, or that the talks should not have started before deployment of the peacekeepers.
Refusal to attend talks "itself could be an act of violence," A.U. Chairman Alpha Oumar Konare warned at the opening Saturday.
Mediators had pressed both sides to declare a cease-fire during the talks. The Sudanese government team obliged Saturday, promising a unilateral cease-fire. Rebels at the talks promised only to consider a truce.
The combatants have announced dozens of cease-fires in the past, only to resume fighting, said Andrew S. Natsios, the U.S. special envoy for Sudan.
The United States, which is spending $600 million a year for humanitarian aid in Darfur, might impose sanctions on the rebels or Sudan's government if either side resumes fighting, Natsios said.
"We are prepared . . . to hold all parties to their cease-fire agreement," he told delegates.
Negotiators and rebels at the talks said they hoped that more prominent rebel leaders would join the talks in coming days, when the negotiations are to break into smaller workshops on security and other issues.
Natsios said it would take "not years, but months" to reach any agreement.