February 11, 2009 report from Associated Press (DOHA, Qatar):
Mediator says Darfur cease-fire close
Darfur's most powerful rebel group and the Sudanese government are close to declaring a cease-fire, the U.N. and African Union mediator said Wednesday.
Word from the two warring sides, however, was less optimistic. A spokesman for the rebels accused government forces of advancing toward the group's positions in Darfur even as the talks were under way, and a Sudanese government minister played down the meeting as «preparatory, no more, no less.
A cease-fire between the government and the rebels of the Justice and Equality Movement would be a significant step in easing fighting in Darfur, where rebel groups complaining of discrimination and neglect took up arms against the government in 2003. The six years of fighting has left 300,000 people dead and 2.7 million displaced, according to U.N. figures.
Previous cease-fires have been short-lived. A 2006 peace agreement had limited impact because it was signed by only one rebel group, and the last round of peace talks collapsed in 2007.
The chief mediator at the talks taking place in the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar said a cease-fire could be announced as early as Wednesday.
"A cease-fire will be announced ... between JEM and the government," the mediator, Djibril Bassole, said in a statement released to reporters.
The Justice and Equality Movement is the strongest and most effective of the many Darfur rebel groups. In May, its fighters launched a brazen military assault on the outskirts of Sudan's capital, Khartoum, in the first attack by Darfur rebels on the seat of government.
More recently, the government has been battling the group for control of a town in southern Darfur.
Bassole said mediators were hopeful that an agreement involving the group would encourage other rebel movement's to enter into peace talks.
However, a spokesman for the Justice and Equality Movement who was in Qatar for the talks, Ahmed Hussein, said government troops were moving toward the group's positions east of Jebel Marrah, a region of central Darfur. He said that was a sign the government is not serious about making peace.
Sudanese Culture Minister Amin Hassan Omar acknowledged "hostilities" were still taking place.
"As long as there is no agreement between the two parties there cannot be an order to the armed forces to stop the fighting," said Omar, who was also attending the talks in Qatar's capital, Doha.
He described the talks as «preparatory, no more, no less.
Speaking by phone from Sudan, Noureddine Mezni, a spokesman for Darfur's U.N. and African Union peacekeepers, could not confirm the rebel group's claims of a government advance.
The Justice and Equality Movement was the only rebel group attending the peace talks in Doha, which began Tuesday.
The leader of the absent Sudanese Liberation Movement, Abdelwahed Elnur, characterized the Qatar meeting as an attempt to rescue Sudan's president, who has been accused by a prosecutor for the International Criminal Court of genocide and war crimes in Darfur.
Qatar's prime minister, Sheik Hamad bin Jassem Al Thani, was presiding over talks in Doha, along with officials from the African Union, the Arab League and the joint U.N.-AU mediator.