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Darfur Rebel Factions Struggle to Unite

Rebel divisions remain major stumbling block to peace in Darfur, raising fears of an escalation of violence.
By Daniel Ooko
Disarray among Darfur's profusion of rebel groups and a peace talk boycott by key leaders of the insurgency have created barriers to resolving five years of conflict in the war-torn region.



The lack of unity among the rebel groups has left open the door to continued ethnic bloodshed, despite the persistent efforts of international mediators to bring the groups together.



The absence of Abdul Wahid Mohammed Nur, leader of the Sudan Liberation Army, SLA, was a critical factor in the dismal failure of last month's talks in Sirte, Libya. As a senior leader of the rebels, he and others have insisted on a ceasefire agreement with the Sudan government before talks begin.



The 39-year-old Nur, a former lawyer now living in exile in Paris, refused to attend the talks until a no-fly zone was declared over Darfur and violence against Darfuris was stopped.



The Sudan government, however, would not comment on the issue.



Although the conflict in western Sudan was labeled a genocide in 2003 by the United States, little has been done to stop the violence despite the presence of several thousand soldiers provided by the Africa Union.



The war and the effects of famine and disease have killed at least 200,000 people and displaced two million in Darfur.



The Sudanese government in Khartoum says only 9,000 people have died.



Meanwhile, the International Criminal Court, ICC, has charged Sudanese minister Ahmed Harun and Janjaweed militia commander Ali Kushyb with working together to attack, persecute, murder, rape, torture and forcibly transfer Fur, Zaghawa and Masalit populations out of Darfur, with many fleeing to neighbouring Chad.



The court says Harun and Kushayb committed 51 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the forcible transfer of at least 60,000 civilians in west Darfur.



Other key rebel factions in Darfur boycotting the talks were the Justice and Equality Movement, JEM, led by Khalil Ibrahim, and the SLA-Unity, a faction of the original SLA led by Mini Minawi.



Contacted by IWPR, Nur said he objected to the choice of Libya as a venue because President Muammar Gadaffi is too close to Khartoum government.



Nur cited many instances of broken ceasefires and insisted that any truce that lacks the presence of a muscular international force to enforce it is useless.



Without such a UN force, said Nur, "this will give the government legitimacy to kill people, to rape".



The current talks, he said, are doing more harm than good, "The process that is going on is not a real peace. It is prolonging the suffering of our people and complicating the problem of Darfur."



A solution to the crisis must come from within Sudan, he said, and cannot be imposed from the outside. "Leadership will not be created in Libya or by the international community. Leadership [should be recognised] by the people on the ground."



Nur also defended his boycott, "I am not a criminal. I am not a saboteur of peace. Real peace will not be made in Libya and it will not be made by this process."



Over the past five years, Darfur rebels have split into ever smaller groups with each claiming control over ever smaller fiefdoms.



As a result, the major rebel leaders such as Nur are not keen to engage in the peace process while factions compete for recognition and opportunism takes over the agenda of the talks.



Despite that, the rebels are nearly unanimous in their demand a ceasefire as a precondition to further talks.



"That's all we have been talking about, ceasefire, ceasefire, ceasefire," said Hashim Hamad, the political adviser for a faction of the SLA.



The rebels also want the talks to include discussions on land, power sharing and security in Darfur.



UN Special Envoy for Darfur, Jan Eliasson, and his AU counterpart, Salim Ahmed Salim, agree the Darfur rebels must present a united front if they expect find a political solution to the conflict.



"Talks could not restart without most of the key rebel factions on board," Salim told IWPR, but none of the key leaders of the insurgency have indicated when or if they will return.



The failure of the Sirte talks also means that the planned UN force of 26,000 troops in Darfur could be seriously delayed.



Suleiman Jahmous, a respected Darfur rebel leader and the Humanitarian Coordinator for the SLA-Unity, said his group is committed to the peace process and urged others to join.



"It is better for the international community and the rebels to accept each other and to sit together and to unify themselves and to negotiate the matter of Darfur as one group," Jahmous told IWPR. "We should not leave anyone out."



The lack of unity has also led to needless violence as some factions see the presence of the AU forces as an aid to the Sudan government.



"Since the signing of the DPA (Darfur Peace Agreement), the Africa Union Peace Mission in Sudan (AMIS) soldiers become targets because the local militia groups associate them with the Darfur Peace [Agreement] signatories," said Hashim Mloso, an aid worker with Save the Children in Darfur.



A faction of SLA-Unity, led by Abdallah Yahia, stormed an AU compound in Haskanita and killed ten and injuring scores of others, angering international observers.



Some progress has been made, however, toward unity.



The rebels appear to have forged a common front after talks in the southern Sudan town of Juba this month.



According to the resolutions of the meeting obtained by IWPR, the other rebel factions, or offshoots of JEM and the SLA, such as the Field Revolutionary Command, the Democratic Patriotic Front and the Sudanese Revolutionary Command, have joined forces under one leadership.



Jarelnabi Abdelkarim, one of the rebel SLM commanders in north Darfur, said efforts would be made to reach out to Nur and Ibrahim of JEM.



"We have set up a committee tasked with contacting the two movements (SLA and JEM) and if possible, to initiate coordination with them," said Abdel Karim.



Jamous, of SLA-Unity, explained, "We are trying to get the Sudan Liberation Army back under one banner if possible. We are contacting field commanders across the region."



He said fighting units previously loyal to other SLA faction leaders had joined the new unified group.



Most worrisome, however, was that delays in reaching a political solution to the crisis in Darfur could ignite what some observers have called a "new and dangerous phase" in the war due to the massive scale of the internal displacements in the region.



Despite the frustration at the latest round of talks, Salim believes that the desire to proceed was attained at Sirte.



Yet, Salim said there was no point resuming talks until most of the key rebel factions had agreed to take part, admitting that the boycotts had been a setback for the peace process.



"I don't think we need to have a fixation on a particular date. What we need to do is to have a fixation on having workable negotiations, which can lead to an agreement," said Salim. "But having said that, of course we also understand, this cannot be an endless process."



Speaking from Kampala, Uganda, one rebel group led by Ahmed Abdel Shafie said the primary issue now is not attendance, but rather unity.



"Our main priority is to unite all the Darfur rebels groups now. The issue of attending peace talks will come later," said factional spokesman Nouri Abdalla.



Mediators admitted that negotiations were unlikely to resume before next year.



"Substantial negotiations may have to be conducted next year," said Sam Ibok, AU chief negotiator.



Although mediators would prefer factions to come face-to-face this year, Ibok said problems that led to last month's breakdown in the talks had to be solved first.



Daniel Ooko is an IWPR contributor based in Nairobi.



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