Following an unprecedented meeting of rebel groups from Darfur, leaders representing more than a dozen militias agreed on a "common platform" for negotiations with the Sudanese government. The four-day talks held in Arusha, Tanzania, ended on Monday with many observers, including the European Union, hailing the gathering as the start of the peace process. Still, the absence of several prominent leaders concerned participants and observers.
The rebel leaders present at the Arusha meeting agreed on a plan to share power and wealth, create security arrangements, deal with land and humanitarian issues, and handle the "final negotiations." The British Broadcasting Corp. reports that the details of the common peace terms will be presented to the Khartoum government in a confidential document.
Special UN envoy to Darfur Jan Eliasson told the BBC the agreement was an important step forward.
"One of the main problems we have had to reach negotiations has been the split and the splintering among the rebel movement," he said, adding that he was on his way to the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, for discussions with the government.
Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief, described the meeting as "very encouraging." Urging rebel groups and the Sudanese government to live up to their commitments, he vowed that the EU would continue its support of the peace process, reports Reuters. Mr. Solana also said that the EU must "demonstrate genuine dedication to put an end to this crisis."
"The prospect of peace in Darfur has moved a significant step closer," he said in a statement. "The common position among essential non-signatory movements is an achievement, which holds the promise of peace negotiations in the coming months."
Rebels say they will be ready to meet with the Sudanese government to hold peace talks within the next two to three months. Representatives from Chad, Egypt, Eritrea, and Libya also attended the conference in order to monitor the progress toward final negotiations, reports the United Nations News Agency. Though not all groups who were invited actually attended the event, those present agreed to allow those who did not participate to join their common platform.
The talks were also supposed to "create an enabling environment for the non-signatories [to last year's Darfur Peace Agreement] to meet and consult among themselves, with other participants and the Special Envoys in order to facilitate the preparations for the negotiations," according to the statement of conclusions issued by [UN and African Union Special Envoys Jan Eliasson and Salim Ahmed Salim] today.
Before the Arusha conference began, The Independent reports, there was much speculation about those not planning to attend, notably Abdul Wahed al-Nur, a founder of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA). A fiercely popular figure since the insurgency first began in 2003, Mr. Nur has retained his appeal even though he has spent little time in Darfur, preferring to live in Paris since the conflict began. Many worry that peace talks will suffer without Nur.
UN officials and Western diplomats believe it is impossible to sell an agreement to Darfur's displaced that Mr Nur has not backed. But publicly, negotiators were putting on a stern face. "This process will not be held hostage by anyone," said Salim Ahmed Salim, the African Union's special envoy, "because what is at stake is the future of the people of Darfur."
Ahmed Hussein Adam, a spokesman for the Justice and Equality Movement, one of the main groups, said the rebels were willing to work together. "We want to seize this opportunity," he said. "This can be the first step towards a meaningful, constructive and comprehensive political process."
In an interview with The Sudan Tribune, Nur said that he was not avoiding the peace process and that the SLA is "always seeking a peaceful political settlement." However, he also said that he would only support a "durable" peace agreement that ensured the safety and protection of "[his] people."
Al-Nur further disclosed to Sudan Tribune his vision to end the Darfur crisis saying it can be achieved through three steps: 1- the Conflict Suspension which means to stop the violence in Darfur; 2- the Conflict Resolution, which leads to negotiations; 3- the Conflict Transformations through peace implementation and sustainable development in the region.
Another prominent SLA member was also missing from the latest talks. Suleiman Jamous, the respected relief coordinator for the SLA, has been in government custody for nearly a year now while he awaits medical treatment. Rebel groups and human rights activists have called for his release, but he still remains in captivity, reports The New York Times.
In their statement, the special envoys "recalled that they had taken up this issue on several occasions with the government of the Sudan" and vowed to "pursue the matter in view of the role Mr. Jamous can play in the political process."