Darfur's "moment of truth," it seems, will have to wait.
With two of the larger rebel factions boycotting this weekend's UN-negotiated talks in Sirte, Libya, with Sudan continuing to delay deployment of the larger 26,000-strong African Union peacekeeping force, and with battles spreading out of Darfur into the oil-rich region of Kordofan, UN chief mediator Jan Eliasson called for the talks to be postponed for three weeks.
"Only after that period ... of approximately three weeks, will we go into substantial negotiations," Mr. Eliasson told the Associated Press on Sunday, adding that more rebel chiefs are expected to arrive for talks within that time.
Yet despite the setback, UN and African Union mediators say that the very fact that the peace talks have started is progress that demands international pressure and support.
"We may have a very dangerous development if we miss this opportunity," said Eliasson, speaking to reporters by video conference before the talks began.
Some experts say the Darfur talks could last several months. But while some rebel groups have appealed for more time to find a common position against the government, the UN says that this crushing conflict has already taken too many lives, and it is prepared to "take action against any party" that might undermine the peace process, violate any negotiated cease-fire, or attack humanitarian aid groups. With hard talk like this, the UN itself may be facing a "moment of truth," just like the rebels and the Sudanese government.
"It's a logical step [to postpone the talks] in light of the impasse, but it does not resolve the fundamental problems that you had at the start," says Alex de Waal, a Sudan expert at the Social Science Research Council in New York. "Simply, when you have more time to get more rebel chiefs to attend, you are more likely to get more of the rebels to the table. But the motivations of the rebels to sign an agreement are not increased, and the motivation of the Sudanese government to sign an agreement is not increased."
Previous peace talks have failed
UN negotiators have attempted to negotiate a Darfur peace agreement before. In June 2006, the UN managed to get only one group, the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) faction led by Minni Minnawi, to sign a peace accord with the government.
Since that time, the SLA has splintered into more than a dozen factions.
In the meantime, another rebel group called the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) has taken steps to widen the war, moving out of Darfur into the neighboring state of Kordofan, attacking government positions, AU peacekeepers, and even kidnapping foreign oil workers at a Chinese-run oil field.
One JEM field commander, Abdel Aziz el-Nurk Ashr, told the BBC's Network Africa radio program, "The oil revenue is not coming for the benefit of the people of Sudan, but to kill our people in Darfur."
Few rebel leaders attend the talks
Only six of Darfur's rebel factions are attending the talks in Libya. The leader of the largest anti-Khartoum faction of the SLA, Abdul Wahid Mohammad Nur, says that his group will participate in talks with Khartoum only after there are guarantees for the safety of their people in Darfur. Once the hybrid peacekeeping force of the AU and UN – a force that could grow as large as 26,000 troops – is in place, then Mr. Nur will be ready to join talks.
"The National Congress Party [the ruling party in Khartoum] is a political organization that does not observe their agreements," says Pa'gan Amum, general secretary of the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement, in Juba. The SPLM fought a 20-year civil war with Khartoum before signing a peace agreement with Khartoum in 2004.
"Even though we have had a bad experience with the NCP, we encourage the Darfur rebel movements to negotiate," Mr. Amum says. "There is a danger that the conflict may spill out to the rest of the country.... That is why we must push for a quick agreement in Libya."
Several rebel leaders contacted by the Monitor were quite gloomy about the prospects of peace from the Libya talks.
Essam El-Haj said that his branch of the SLA was not participating because the government in Khartoum is not honest in its agreement. Jarel Nebe Abdel Kareem, of another SLA faction, blamed the UN for not giving enough time for the various rebel factions to come up with a common negotiating position against Khartoum.
"I don't think the conditions are conducive for talks," says Mr. de Waal.
He warns that recent attacks by JEM on oil facilities in Kordofan could actually prove more dangerous than the Darfur conflict itself.
"It has been clear for some time that JEM basically wants to expand the conflict to essentially bring down the government, and the best way to do that is to expand the conflict to Kordofan."
Like Darfuris, many citizens of Kordofan are disenchanted with the government in Khartoum, but unlike the Darfuris, the people of Kordofan have oil fields and feel that the benefits of the oil wealth are bypassing them.
"Kordofan is a tinderbox," says de Waal.
• Abdul Aziz Ibrahim contributed to this report from Khartoum and Juba, Sudan.