Mediators offer new Darfur peace proposal

Mediators from theAfrican Union joined by senior U.S. and British officials were preparing a substantially changed Darfur peace proposal after rebels rejected the original draft and questioned whether the AU should oversee the peace talks, two Sudanese close to the negotiations said after seeing the new document Wednesday.

The two sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the new proposal was not yet official, said it was aimed at meeting rebel demands for a greater share of power and wealth. The Sudanese government, though, had accepted the original draft, and its official news agency reported Wednesday that its chief negotiator, Majzoub Khalifa, had initialed. It was not immediately clear how it would respond to any changes.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick and British Cabinet member Hilary Benn, who first joined efforts to hammer out an agreement Tuesday, met Wednesday morning with African Union officials to finalize the new proposal, the two Sudanese who had seen it said. No other details were immediately available. Denis Sassou-Nguesso, Republic of Congo 's president and current head of the 53-nation African Union, and other African leaders were expected in Nigeria later Wednesday to add to the push for a solution to a crisis that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

Earlier, Jaffer Monro, spokesman for the main Sudan Liberation Movement, had said that if the initial proposal was not significantly changed, the rebels would press for the United Nations or another body to take over the peace talks from the African Union. The African Union has overseen the talks for two years, and its mediators have often expressed frustration at the seeming unwillingness of either side to compromise or adhere to a cease-fire declared in April, 2004. Monro was not immediately available for comment on the possibility the proposed agreement would be changed to meet rebel concerns.

African Union mediators had set a Sunday deadline for the two sides to accept the original draft, but extended that twice after meeting rebel objections. The latest deadline is midnight Thursday. Asked late Tuesday what would happen if there is no agreement by Thursday, chief AU mediator Salim Ahmed Salim said: "There will be continued killing, continued suffering, and all the destruction that has been going on."

Zoellick was dispatched to the session after thousands of people rallied over the weekend in the United States calling for an end to violence and deprivation in Darfur . President George W. Bush called Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on Monday night about the importance of peace in Darfur , according to the official Sudan Press Agency and Frederick Jones, a spokesman for Bush's National Security Council.

Bush has described government-backed attacks on civilians in Darfur as genocide. During the call, Bush urged al-Bashir to send his Vice President Ali Osman Mohammed Taha, who left Abuja Monday, back to the peace talks, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said. The president told al-Bashir to accept a U.N. Darfur peacekeeping mission backed by NATO logistics and training.

Two main rebel groups both accuse the central government of neglecting impoverished Darfur , though they also have battled each other for territory and at least one has developed its own internal factions. The Justice and Equality Movement is closely linked to Islamic fundamentalists.

Decades of low-level tribal clashes over land and water in Darfur erupted into large-scale violence in early 2003. The central government is accused of responding by unleashing Arab tribal militias known as Janjaweed upon civilians. Sudan denies backing the Janjaweed. Darfur has been a staging ground for Chadian rebels, who have risen up against the government there, and Sudan accuses Chad of supporting Darfur rebels. The violence threatens to escalate: Osama bin Laden last week urged his followers to go to Sudan to fight a proposed U.N. presence.

Even as the peace parley continued in the Nigerian capital, U.N. officials reported an upsurge of fighting in Darfur , where a three-year conflict has led to the deaths of at least 180,000 people and the displacement of more than 2 million. Ted Chaiban, who heads Sudan operations for the U.N. Children's Fund, said among the hardest hit areas was rebel-held Gereida, near the South Darfur capital of Nyala, which UNICEF says has seen major Arab militia attacks that have forced 200,000 people from their homes in the last three months alone.

Chaiban said the various factions were likely expecting a treaty in Abuja and were jockeying to hold the most territory before a cease-fire was declared. "It is important that the agreement be signed so that this kind of jockeying ... would cease," Chaiban said in a telephone interview Tuesday, reports the AP.


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