U.N., diplomats seek to bring parties to peace table

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UNITED NATIONS (AP) – United Nations and African Union diplomats are pushing anew for peace in Sudan’s war-torn Darfur region after months of stalled efforts that have foundered on the details of a new, hybrid peacekeeping force.

The first step in the new effort will be to “instill a sense of importance of reducing the level of violence so that … we can create conditions for a political process,” said Jan Eliasson, U.N. special envoy for Darfur.

Eliasson’s and his AU counterpart, Salim Ahmed Salim, met Friday with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who took office Jan. 1 and has devoted much of his first days on the job to the Darfur conflict that has killed more than 200,000 people and displaced 2.5 million.

The Sudanese government and one of the major rebel groups signed a peace agreement in May. But the pact has provoked months of fighting between rival rebel factions that refused to sign.

“At the end of the day really there can be no military solution to the crisis in Darfur,” Salim said.

Eliasson said he was traveling to Ethiopia over the weekend to meet African Union officials and would head to Sudan on Tuesday.

How the violence can be reduced is a pressing problem, Eliasson and Salim said, but it isn’t the focus of their new mission.

Fighting in Darfur began in February 2003 when rebels from black African tribes took up arms, complaining of decades of neglect and discrimination by Sudan’s Arab-dominated government. The government is accused of unleashing Arab tribal militia known as the janjaweed against civilians in a campaign of murder, rape and arson. The government denies the allegations.

A poorly equipped and financed African Union force of 7,000 has been unable to bring security to region, and the conflict has spilled over into neighboring Chad.

Al-Bashir rejected a U.N. Security Council resolution in August that called for more than 20,000 U.N. peacekeepers to replace the overwhelmed AU force, claiming a U.N. force would compromise Sudan’s sovereignty and try to recolonize the country.

Annan then proposed a three-step U.N. package to beef up the African Union force, culminating with the deployment of a 22,000-strong “hybrid” AU-U.N. force.

Last month, al-Bashir sent a letter to Annan appearing to endorse the package. But Sudan’s U.N. Ambassador Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem later told reporters that the hybrid force must be smaller and have no U.N. peacekeepers in traditional blue helmets, only African troops supported by U.N. technical and logistical experts.

The U.N. is going ahead with the first phase of the package that will provide the AU with about 140 military officers and U.N. police, 36 armored personnel carriers, night-vision goggles and global positioning equipment. A second, larger support package that could include several hundred U.N. military, police and civilian personnel and aircraft is being discussed.

Ideally, Salim said, a cease-fire would be needed to facilitate peace talks, but short of that, a de-escalation of the violence is essential. He said strengthening the African Union force was crucial to that goal.

But he said the U.N. and AU could not wait for that to happen before trying to bring the parties together, especially those that did not sign the peace deal.

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