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US envoy meets rival Darfur rebel leaders

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Nov 19, 2005 (KHARTOUM) — A top U.S. State Department official met rival leaders of a Darfur rebel group on Saturday in the first such meeting on Sudanese soil.

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U.S. diplomat Jendayi E. Frazer (AP).

Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Jendayi E. Frazer met Minni Minnawi and Abdel Wahid Nur of the Sudan Liberation Army in an African Union camp in El Fasher, South Darfur, African Union spokesman Noureddine Mezni said.

Mezni declined to disclose the subject of the talks, but the United States has been pushing the two rivals toward a coordinated position in peace talks with the government.

The next round of peace talks, chaired by the African Union, are due to begin Monday in the Nigerian capital of Abuja.

Frazer’s superior, Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, met the two leaders in Nairobi on Nov. 8 for talks that were delayed when both factions walked out after his arrival, each protesting the presence of the other.

At the beginning of this month, Minnawi was elected leader of the SLA at a meeting that Nur boycotted and regards as invalid. The split within the movement, the biggest of the Darfur rebel groups, has complicated efforts to reach peace in the western Sudan.

The African Union’s chief envoy to Sudan, Baba Gana Kingibe, attended Saturday’s meeting, according to AU officials speaking on condition of anonymity. Kingibe has also pressed the two factions to coordinate, saying earlier this month that his organization cannot choose their leaders, "but we can tell them they better get their act together."

Minnawi told The Associated Press in Muhajiria, Darfur, on Friday that Nur did not have a big following within the SLA. "He is still a member of the SLA, but he has no faction," Minnawi said.

The two leaders were flown to the AU camp for the meeting in an AU helicopter. While El Fasher is in the government-held part of Darfur, the rebel leaders would have enjoyed immunity from arrest as guests of the African Union.

The Darfur conflict began in February 2003 when the SLA and another rebel group took up arms against the government, accusing it of neglect and repression of Sudanese of African origin.

The government is accused of supporting a counter-insurgency led by Arab militia, known as the Janjaweed, which has been blamed for widespread killing, rape and arson. The Sudanese government denies backing the Janjaweed.

The United Nations estimates that 180,000 people have died in the conflict, mainly through famine and disease. Several million more have either fled into neighboring Chad or inside Sudan.

(AP/ST)

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