Darfur deadline extended

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ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) – The African Union extended the Tuesday midnight deadline for a peace pact aimed at resolving violence in Sudan’s Darfur region that has claimed tens of thousands of lives, the chief AU mediator said.

The 48-hour extension came as the United States, Britain and Libya sent top envoys to press the Sudanese government and rebels to reach a compromise to ending fighting that has also driven millions from their homes.

The time limit for an agreement was set to run out at midnight Tuesday, but U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick predicted an extension after he waded into the long-stymied talks and began pressuring rival factions to strike a deal.

The formal announcement came later from Chief AU mediator Salim Ahmed Salim.

Asked what would happen if there is no agreement, he said, “there will be continued killing, continued suffering, and all the destruction that has been going on.”

The Sudanese government has agreed to the peace proposal, but rebels have been holding out for regional autonomy and more power in the central government.

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.

“We asked him (Zoellick) to put pressure on the government side so that we can have a balanced paper – and then we can sign it,” said Ahmed Hussein, a spokesman for the Justice and Equality Movement, one of the Darfur rebel factions.

President 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. peacekeeping mission backed by NATO logistics and training for Darfur.

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.

The African Union had originally set a Sunday deadline for the end to peace talks, but extended that by 48 hours when the rebels rejected the AU-drafted proposed peace agreement.

The African Union has also selected five African heads of state to help ensure that any agreement on Darfur is accepted by all parties, said the Republic of Congo’s U.N. Ambassador Basile Ikouebe, whose country is the current chair of the 53-nation bloc.

Ikouebe said the leader of his nation, along with those from South Africa, Nigeria, Senegal and Egypt were scheduled to be in Abuja on Thursday to meet the participants in the negotiations.

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.

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