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Darfur Peace Talks on Verge of Collapse

By Peter Heinlein
Addis Ababa
12 June 2008

The two top mediators on Darfur have painted a grim picture of the prospects for peace in the western Sudanese region. But as VOA's Peter Heinlein reports from Addis Ababa, U.N. special envoy Jan Eliasson and his African Union counterpart Salim Ahmed Salim differ in their views of why peacemaking efforts are failing.

In a briefing for members of the African Union Peace and Security Council Thursday, Eliasson and Salim Salim reported conditions in Darfur are worse than they have been in some time.

Speaking to VOA after the briefing, Eliasson said there is no longer the sense of optimism there was last July, when the Security Council authorized a hybrid Darfur peacekeeping force. Now, he said, the objective is just to prevent disaster from striking.

"Our best period was last summer… At that time we thought we had the process starting. Since then we've seen very negative developments. And I think you should see is what we are doing today is we are reducing the ambitions. We don't expect we can start soon substantive talks. But what we expect is that everybody now puts his shoulder to the door and really make sure we have increased security, because an escalation of hostilities now could be truly fatal for the people of Darfur," he said.

Eliasson described the situation in Darfur as 'extremely fragile'.

"We have said that many times, but this time it's really serious. I've seen it with my own eyes. The starvation is around the corner. It's actually starvation in many places already. And if we have an escalation of hostilities, at the side of rampant banditry and hijacking of cars, and problems of insecurity, we may have a large scale disaster at hand," he said.

Eliasson and African Union envoy Salim Ahmed Salim both decry the slow progress in mobilizing the 26,000 - strong hybrid peacekeeping force known as UNAMID. A year after the force was created, it has only about 10,000 troops, not much more than the outgunned and overmatched AU force it replaced.

But when it comes to diagnosing the root of the problem, the two envoys differ. Salim agrees with analysts who say the Sudanese government has stymied peace efforts by puttting up obstacles to deployment of the force. But he says the bigger problem is a lack of political will by wealthy countries that have failed to provide the helicopters and funding needed to build a credible peacekeeping force.

"I think really frankly there are areas the Sudanese government can be more proactive, can be more flexible. But by and large right now, if you ask anyone who's following the full situation inside Darfur they'll tell you it's the willingness of the international community and those who have the resources to make sure that the forces are deployed," he said.

Eliasson, however, disagrees with this assessment. "I think the main burden of responsibility lies with the parties to the conflict and unfortunately also the atmosphere in the neighborhood. We have seen as the divisions inside one of the major movements, JEM, which split last fall, we have seen problems of cooperation inside the government of Sudan. We've seen growing difficulties between Chad and Sudan, from the end of last year, and we have seen open hostilities, coup attempts in N'Djamena, an attack on Khartoum, and recently fighting around Abyei in southern Sudan," he said.

The two envoys are scheduled to deliver the same message to the U.N. Security Council in New York.

War broke out in Darfur in 2003 when black African tribesman took up arms against the Khartoum government, complaining of decades of neglect and discrimination. The U.N. estimates more than 200,000 people have been killed and over two million driven from their homes in the more than five years since.

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