China urges restraint after Darfur violence flares

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BEIJING, Sep 18 (Reuters) China urged the Sudanese government and other players in Darfur's crisis today to ''exercise restraint'' and avoid intensified bloodshed there ahead of peace talks and the arrival of UN peacekeepers.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned yesterday that recent fighting in Darfur could derail peace talks scheduled in Libya next month.

His warning came after signs of flaring conflict earlier this month, when African Union peacekeepers said civilians were killed by aerial bombardments and ground clashes in Darfur.

Ban also mentioned attacks that rebel groups said the government had carried out in August and a rebel assault.

Western politicians and rights groups have accused China of abetting bloodshed in Darfur by maintaining big investments in Sudanese oil, selling Khartoum arms that end up in Darfur, and fending off stronger UN Security Council resolutions.

But China has been working hard to stop Darfur becoming a dark blot on its diplomatic record.

Beijing has claimed credit for persuading Khartoum to accept a planned 26,000-strong ''hybrid'' UN-African Union peacekeeping force for Darfur, and Beijing will send more than 300 engineering troops there in October to help prepare for the main force.

Now special Darfur envoy Liu Guijin has added his voice to calls for an end to clashes that could threaten the brittle peace process.

''The security situation in Darfur certainly requires the joint efforts of the international community,'' Liu, a veteran diplomat, told a news conference in Beijing, noting violence over confiscated land and a dangerous ''militarisation'' of refugees.

RESTRAINT URGED ''Of course, we also call on all parties in the Darfur issue, including the Sudanese government and parties that have not signed the peace agreement, to exercise restraint so that the local security situation can further improve as soon as possible''.

More than four years of ethnic and political conflict in Darfur have left 200,000 dead and driven another 2.5 million from their homes, international experts have estimated.

Khartoum calls those estimates exaggerated and puts the dead at 9,000.

Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir has promised to observe a ceasefire in Darfur, but fighting has continued.

Liu, who recently went to the United States to explain China's stance to politicians and advocacy groups, said the key to successful talks was ensuring Darfur's many major opposition groups all took part and chose effective representatives.

Countries backing the UN peacekeeping presence must also ensure that troops receive the billions of dollars promised on time, Liu said.

China would consider adding combat troops to the engineers it has already assigned for the peacekeeping operation, he added.

Sudan is just one part of Africa where China's presence has come under criticism over development and human rights worries.

Beijing has also been a patient patron of Zimbabwe, where the government of Robert Mugabe, the 83-year-old president, faces growing domestic turmoil and international criticism.

Liu said China had recently stopped providing development aid to Zimbabwe but was still sending ''humanitarian aid''.

''Owing to the dramatic currency revaluations and rapid deterioration of economic conditions, the economic outcomes of these (development) projects have not been so good,'' he said.

REUTERS ARB VC1650

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