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Sudan to announce Darfur cease-fire at start of talks with rebels this week

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

UNITED NATIONS -- Sudan will announce a cease-fire at the start of talks with rebel groups Saturday aimed at ending the conflict in Darfur, the country's U.N. ambassador said Monday.

Ambassador Abdelmahmood Abdalhaleem Mohamed said the government decided to declare a cease-fire at the opening session to help promote the success of the talks in the Libyan city of Sirte.

"On that day ... we will declare a cease-fire so that we can give the negotiators a chance to get out with an agreement on cessation of hostilities and cease-fire in the first round of the talks," he said in an interview.

"So this will be a good confidence-building measure when all parties agree to a cease-fire, which we are going to announce on the 27th," Mohamed added.

Earlier this month, the U.N. special envoy to Darfur, Jan Eliasson, called on the Sudanese government and rebel factions to begin the peace talks with a cease-fire agreement and urged both sides to make concessions.

"Fighting should not be the means for achieving political goals," he said.

Past cease-fires in Darfur have been regularly violated and it is doubtful that all rebel groups will sign on to a truce.

A key Darfur rebel chief, Abdul Wahid Elnur, has refused to attend talks if they are held in Libya. Khalil Ibrahim of the Justice and Equality Movement is also threatening to boycott unless the U.N. and African Union can persuade the rival Sudan Liberation Army to unite its splinter factions for the negotiations.

More than 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million have been uprooted since ethnic African rebels in Darfur took up arms against the Arab-dominated Sudanese government in February 2003, accusing it of decades of discrimination. Sudan's government is accused of retaliating by unleashing a militia of Arab nomads known as the janjaweed -- a charge it denies.

The government signed a peace agreement with one rebel group in May 2006, but other rebel groups refused -- and many of those groups have since splintered, complicating prospects for a political settlement.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad urged "all relevant rebel elements" to participate in the talks.

"Everyone must have a cease-fire immediately when the meeting starts, the government and the rebel side," he said Monday.

"Anyone who doesn't participate or does not observe a cease-fire will have to answer to the international community, to the people of Darfur, and to the people of Sudan," Khalilzad said.

The peace negotiations will be taking place at a time when the U.N. and the African Union are pressing to deploy a 26,000-strong joint peacekeeping force in Darfur to replace the beleaguered 7,000-strong AU force now on the ground.

Khalilzad said the United States is "not satisfied" with Sudan's cooperation in making land available for the new troops -- and with its failure to approve the composition of the AU-U.N. hybrid force.

He urged Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to approve the force "as quickly as possible," stressing that it is predominantly African -- as Sudan demanded -- with more than 90 percent of the ground troops from Africa.

Asked whether Sudan has agreed to the hybrid force, Sudan's Mohamed said "largely yes."

"We told them ... whatever battalions are ready, send them," he said, rejecting the suggestion that Sudan was somehow obstructing the deployment.

Mohamed criticized the U.N.'s decision to award a $250 million contract without competitive bidding to the California company Pacific Architect Engineers, Inc., to build five new camps in Darfur for 4,100 U.N. and AU personnel.

U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas said last week the complexity of the project and the challenging timeline mandated by the Security Council required a contractor with considerable experience in Darfur.

But Mohamed said the contract violates U.N. procedures and rules and Sudan will protest to the General Assembly.

"We are not happy, and the whole international community is unhappy about how rules are here dodged on the ground like this to make happy the United States businessmen," he said.

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