Home | News    Saturday 18 December 2004

Sudan govt rejects Darfur ceasefire ultimatum, threatening peace talks

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Mustafa Ismail

ABUJA, Dec 18 (AFP) — Sudan rejected an African Union demand that it pull back its forces from positions seized during its latest two-week-old offensive against rebels in the Darfur region, pushing peace talks to the brink of collapse.

"How come (should) the government troops withdraw from Darfur region so long as they are responsible for maintenance of peace and stability in the region?" Sudanese Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail responded to reporters in Khartoum when asked about the AU ultimatum.

As he spoke, international mediators were holding an emergency meeting in the Nigerian capital Abuja to discuss the future of an African Union-sponsored peace process in the light of the latest eruption of violence in the arid western region.

Earlier, the AU team had set a deadline of 1700 GMT for both the government and the rebels to halt their attacks and for Khartoum to cede control of territory seized since it launched its latest push in violation of an April ceasefire agreement.

African Union commission chairman Alpha Omar Konare "stressed the urgent need" for the Khartoum government and two rebel movements to comply" and warned that future violation would be reported to the United Nations Security Council, a precursor to potential international punitive action.

Just before the deadline expired, a senior AU diplomat told AFP that government troops had not yet began to withdraw from the newly acquired positions near the southern Darfur community of Labado as demanded.

Konare urged Khartoum "to immediately stop its present military offensive and withdraw its forces to their former position in order to create an enabling environment for ongoing political negotiations in Abuja," the statement said.

The rebels "should also stop all attacks against commercial activities and government structures, including police stations," the statement said, adding that AU mediators in Nigeria were still waiting for both sides to respond to the ultimatum.

Envoys from both the Khartoum government and Darfur’s two main rebel groups have been in Abuja for more than a week in order to pursue a fourth round of AU-led peace talks, but have been stalemated since Tuesday when the insurgents suspended their participation in protest at the government offensive.

Darfur has been a theatre of clashes since February 2003 when the rebels from minority tribes took up arms to seek greater autonomy for the region.

Khartoum and its proxy, the Janjaweed Arab militia, responded with a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing against Darfur’s black African tribes.

Tens of thousands are estimated to have been killed and 1.6 million driven from their homes by the conflict.

On Friday, the commander of the African Union’s observer force in Darfur confirmed that the Sudanese army and Janjaweed were on the march and had attacked two towns, as well as looted and burned at least eight villages in the first two weeks of December.

Sudan’s chief negotiator, Agriculture Minister Majzoub al-Khalifa, told reporters government forces had been ordered to halt their advance and had complied except in one area where he said they had been attacked by rebels.

The chief negotiator of the rebel Justice and Equality Movement, Mohammed Ahmed Tugod, said Saturday that the government had done nothing to halt its advance. "We expect fighting in a few hours from now," he warned.