Darfur talks may not resume this year - AU envoy

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KHARTOUM, Nov 17 (Reuters) Stalled peace talks between Darfur rebels and Sudan's government may not resume until next year instead of as planned in December, a senior African Union official has said.

Negotiators had hoped to make significant progress in the peace talks by December to pave the way for the arrival of a 26,000-strong force of African Union and United Nations peace keepers in the troubled region.

But the African Union's Darfur envoy, Salim Ahmed Salim, told reporters late yesterday that organisers may have to wait longer for senior insurgent leaders to finalise their negotiating positions and agree to talk.

Salim said he was still hoping to make progress with AU-UN-sponsored talks by December: ''But I am not one of those who say the talks must begin before then under any circumstances.'' Negotiating teams would re-evaluate the timing ''as the days go on'' he said.

''We don't need to have a fixation on a particular date ...

We are more attached to the principle of getting the negotiations going than to say they must start the next week or the week after,'' he said.

Talks would only work, he added, if the majority of Darfur's senior rebel leaders agreed to attend.

Diplomats hope there will be an agreement before the peacekeepers deploy from Jan 1, 2008, but have not ruled out a deployment even without a deal.

The first round of peace talks started in the Libyan city of Sirte in October, but quickly fizzled out when most rebel groups decided to boycott them. Insurgents criticised the choice of venue, saying Libya was politically too close to Khartoum, and demanded more time to prepare.

Many rebel factions have been carrying out their own meeting in south Sudan's capital Juba to try to hammer out a common position. But so far, only a handful of smaller groups have agreed to unite under one banner.

The second round of the peace talks, supposed to mean ''substantive'' negotiations between rebels and Khartoum, are scheduled for December.

The African Union said yesterday it had appointed South African Assistant Police Commissioner Michael J Fryer to lead 6,000 police officers who will form part of the coming hybrid force in Darfur.

International experts estimate 200,000 people have died in the Darfur conflict and 2.5 million driven from their homes, but Sudan says only 9,000 have died.

Reuters PD RN1603

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