May 4, 2006 (ABUJA) — Last-ditch proposals to salvage a peace agreement for Darfur help meet key rebel demands and could open the way to a deal, a rebel negotiator said Thursday, a day after Sudan’s government indicated the U.S.-proposed changes could be acceptable.
Four pages of revisions to the 85-page peace plan drawn up by African Union mediators offer concessions to the rebels on integrating fighters into the Sudan armed forces, on compensation for war victims and power-sharing.
They were presented to the warring parties Thursday afternoon, hours before a midnight make-or-break deadline already extended twice since Sunday.
"We are going to study them, but the improvements give us the sign that we can agree, that we do not need to renegotiate and that there will be no further delay for the final agreement," Jaffer Monro of the largest rebel Sudan Liberation Movement told The Associated Press.
"We hope that the Americans’ suggestion will be agreed upon," Sudanese government spokesman Abdulrahman Zuma told The Associated Press. On Wednesday, he said the U.S.-drafted revisions make an agreement possible.
African leaders in Abuja for a health conference were scheduled to hold a mini-summit with the warring parties Thursday evening, to add to pressure for an agreement that has mounted since the United States and Britain sent top envoys to Nigeria’s capital to help resolve an impasse after two years of staggered negotiations on Darfur.
Sudan’s government already had agreed to the initial proposal.
The envoys, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick and Britain’s Cooperation Minister Hilary Benn, were not immediately available for comment.
The talks in the Nigerian capital are aimed at resolving a crisis in Darfur, in western Sudan, that has claimed at least 180,000 lives and forced more than 2 million people to flee their homes. Some 3 million people are living on the edge as the United Nations has cut food aid to below survival levels, strapped by cash and impeded by security from reaching needy victims.
The conflict erupted in 2003 when ethnic African farmers rebelled and armed groups emerged, accusing the Arabist central government of neglect and then of arming ethnic Arab nomads with whom they long have clashed over water and land. The central government denies that it arms the militias.
The conflict has spilled over into Chad, which accuses Sudan of helping rebels who attempted a failed coup last month, and into the Central African Republic, where rebel groups have emerged since fighting began in Darfur. Sudan borders nine countries including Libya and Egypt and the strategic Red Sea channel used to transport oil from the Middle East, so there are fears of a conflagration in the region.
Oil was discovered in Darfur and drilling began last year, creating complications and rivalries between Western countries, and between them and China, whose single largest source of foreign crude is Sudan.
Revisions to the peace plan made available to the AP call for 4,000 rebels to be integrated into Sudan’s armed forces and another 1,000 into the police force. In addition, 3,000 rebels would be given training and education at military colleges. The initial proposal mentioned no figures.
It also provides for rebels to comprise 33 percent of all newly integrated battalions nationwide, and 50 percent in areas to be agreed, notably Darfur.
Sudanese government spokesman Abdulrahman Zuma said Wednesday his government had considered integrating no more than 100 rebels into the armed forces, and that he expected a final agreement to rest somewhere between that figure and the proposed 4,000.
"Through this so-called American initiative, it seems that the government is going to make some concessions, especially about reintegration and disarmament," he said.
The disarmament refers to the Janjaweed Arab militia that is accused of some of the worst atrocities in Darfur. Sudan’s government denies that it arms Janjaweed and Zuma said his government was willing to agree to the new proposal for a speedy disarmament. The initial proposal was for them to be confined to barracks for an unspecified transitional period.
Other significant changes include giving the rebels 70 percent of all legislators’ seats in the three Darfurian provinces. It would be a major concession from Sudan’s government but still does not meet rebel demands for the position of second vice president in the central government instead of the proposed special adviser to the president, which would be the No. 4 instead of No. 3 position in the Khartoum government hierarchy.
Rebel negotiators said they remained concerned about security arrangements. The agreement calls for a protection force for civilians but does not detail its composition. They want a joint protection force including rebels and government, African Union and U.N. forces.
The rebels said only the United States had the power to win concessions from Sudan’s government, though it was unclear what bargaining chips were being used by Washington, which dispatched Zoellick after thousands of Americans protested in the United States over the weekend to demand an end to the slaughter in Darfur.
On Friday, Washington counted Sudan among six state sponsors of terror, even while it credited Khartoum with taking significant steps to cooperate in the global war on terror.
The U.N. Security Council a year ago authorized seizure of assets and a travel ban on individuals defying peace efforts or violating human rights law in Darfur. Those sanctions were imposed for the first time last week against a commander of the Sudanese air force, a Janjaweed militia leader and two rebel commanders.
As the talks progressed, U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland was preparing to go to Darfur. Last month, the Sudanese government barred Egeland from visiting Darfur and the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. But the U.N. envoy said the government has now invited him on a trip he plans to use to try to improve security for relief workers and war victims, to get more cooperation from the government and rebels for humanitarian work, and to appeal for immediate funding.