Darfur's 'Moment of Truth' Yields Little

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 8, 2007

TRIPOLI, Libya, Nov. 7 -- For more than a week, U.N. helicopters have flown back and forth from Darfur, ferrying rebels in the bush to peace talks in Libya and envoys to the bush for consultations with the rebels, U.N. officials say.

But since convening the latest international talks to end the 4½-year conflict in the vast region of western Sudan, international mediators have been unable to achieve accord on even the most basic points of the negotiations themselves -- where they should be held and when, and who should take part.

International envoys say low-level discussions continue in the Libyan coastal town of Sirte, the home town of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, who provided a marble convention hall the size of a basketball arena for the negotiations.

But all major rebel leaders boycotted the opening round of the talks. Substantive negotiations between Sudan's government and the rebels are due in December.

Rebel leaders pledged this week to boycott that round as well unless the sponsors of the talks, the United Nations and the African Union, picked a site other than Libya and met other conditions.

When the talks began, U.N. envoy Jan Eliasson described them as "a moment of truth" toward political resolution of the conflict.

But U.N. officials this week stressed partial goals, including a cease-fire by both sides and uniting the fragmented rebel movements.

"We should not have had very high expectations from the outset. We did try to be realistic," Ahmed Fawzi, a U.N. spokesman for the mediation, said by phone from New York. U.N. officials hope "as many people will board the train as possible," he added.

The Darfur rebels took up arms in 2003, accusing the Arab-dominated Sudanese government of discrimination against the ethnically African villagers of Darfur. The rebels and international groups say the government responded in part by arming militias, known as Janjaweed, although the government denies that. The fighting has left as many as 450,000 people dead and driven more than 2.5 million from their homes.

The U.S. envoy for Sudan, Andrew S. Natsios, said in an interview late last week that the Libya talks were "the beginning of a process. It's real. It's going to happen."

The obstacles are many.

The Darfur talks have become snarled in the fraying of a peace deal in a separate conflict in Sudan, the 21-year civil war between north and south that killed an estimated 2 million people.

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