Sudan may accept U.N. peacekeepers

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ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) – Sudan’s government said Saturday that its peace accord with Darfur’s main insurgent group could pave the way for it to welcome U.N. peacekeepers, as mediators worked to persuade the rest of the fractured rebel movement to join the process.

The peace agreement, reached Friday in Abuja with one branch of the Sudan Liberation Army after two years of sporadic negotiations, aims to end ethnic bloodshed that has killed at least 180,000 people in three years and left some 2 million displaced.

The suggestion that it could pave the way for a deployment of U.N. peacekeepers overturns previous rejections by Khartoum, which so far has allowed only African Union peacekeepers on the ground.

“The Sudan government will be open for any assistance,” said Bakri Mulah, secretary-general for external affairs in Sudan’s Information Ministry, told The Associated Press in Khartoum, Sudan. “It will not reject or oppose any effort either from the EU or from the United States or from the United Nations in realizing peace in Darfur on the grounds of this agreement.”

The underfunded African forces have largely been ineffective in stopping atrocities and re-establishing security, leaving tens of thousands of refugees in camps with little food or water.

Decades of low-level tribal clashes over land and water in Darfur, a vast region about the size of France, erupted into large-scale violence in early 2003 with rebels demanding regional autonomy. The government is accused of responding by unleashing Janjaweed militias upon civilians, a charge Sudan denies.

The peace deal calls for a cease-fire, disarmament of goverment-linked militias, the integration of thousands of rebel fighters into Sudan’s armed forces and a protection force for civilians in the immediate aftermath of the war.

Yet there were concerns the deal could fall apart. Both sides have a history of failing to honor agreements, and the fledgling accord was struck with only one rebel group and only after intense pressure from the United States, which sent Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick and letters from President Bush.

Mediators on Saturday were still trying to persuade the second largest rebel group – another branch of the Sudan Liberation Army, backed by the Fur tribe, Darfur’s largest – to join the deal.

Fighting intensified in recent days as well, which was interpreted as fighters jockeying for territory before the signing.

Abdulwahid El Nur, the leader of the splinter rebel faction, met Saturday with Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo. Earlier, he called the peace deal “criminal,” saying it failed to adequately address core grievances that have festered over decades of neglect by the central government.

El Nur has demanded that the three Darfur states be incorporated into one autonomous region, that rebel movements have greater representation within the state legislature, that a second vice presidential position be created and held by a rebel officers, and that war victims be given hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation.

Mediators said they were offering no new concessions in the plan backed by the African Union, the United States, Britain, the European Union and the Arab League.

The deal guarantees that rebel factions will have 21 of 73 seats in each of the three Darfur state legislatures; the rebels had demanded a majority of seats.

Zoellick admitted there was much work ahead. Getting a U.N. peacekeeping force on the ground was key but would take at least six months, he said Friday.

Even then, Darfur “is going to remain a dangerous place. There is still a lot of distrust and fear,” Zoellick said. There are “spoilers” who present “a reality and certainly a danger.”

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, welcoming the peace deal Friday, reiterated the importance of sending a U.N. force.

On Saturday, his spokesman, Stephane Dujarric said the U.N. “would, of course, expect to have access given to a U.N. planning team that will need to go to Darfur.”

The Sudanese government initially rejected calls for U.N. peacekeepers to replace the thousands of African Union peacekeepers in Darfur now, but government spokesman Abdulrahman Zuma indicated Friday it would yield once the peace treaty was signed.

John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said the comments Saturday marked “the first tangible indication that the Abuja peace agreement is really taking hold.”

Mediators said they were not reaching out to the Justice and Equality Movement, a small group with ties to Islamic fundamentalists that wants regime change in Sudan, ruled by Gen. Omar al-Bashir who seized power in a 1989 coup.

The rebel group is seen as militarily insignificant but nevertheless vowed to fight on.

“We are going back to where we came from – the bush,” said the movement’s chief negotiator, Hame Hussein. “The war continues unless the root causes are addressed.”

A cease-fire is supposed to take effect in seven days, and the government is required within 37 days to complete a plan to move armed militia to restricted areas, remove heavy weapons and for disarmament of the warring groups, Zoellick said.

While details for a U.N. peacekeeping force are finalized, the U.S. diplomat said the United States had asked Rwanda to send in some 1,200 troops to supplement the AU monitors.

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