ABUJA, May 2 (Reuters) The warring parties from Sudan's Darfur region struggled today to extract concessions from each other before a midnight deadline for a peace agreement, as senior US and British officials pressed for a deal.
The government of Sudan has accepted an 85-page draft settlement but three Darfur rebel factions refuse to sign, saying they are unhappy with the proposals on security, power-sharing and wealth-sharing.
US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick and Britain's International Development Secretary Hilary Benn held back-to-back meetings with the sides and observers said their involvement could jolt the rebels into accepting the peace plan.
''(The rebels) have to make the shift from criticising the many injustices that they and their people have suffered, to seeing that a much better future can be grasped on the basis of this agreement,'' said Alex de Waal, an adviser to the African Union (AU), which is mediating the talks in Abuja, Nigeria.
Mediators say the rebels insist that some of their demands, such as a vice president's post and a regional government, be met in full although months of negotiations have shown that compromises with Khartoum are necessary.
Observers say failure to get a deal would be disastrous.
''Nobody will look good, the AU, the government or the (rebel) movements, but the real victims will be the people on the ground,'' said Sam Ibok, head of the AU mediation team.
''They will not be able to return to their homes to cultivate their lands. They will have to spend more time in camps. Security will deteriorate. Women will continue to be exposed to rape and children will continue to suffer,'' he said.
The top two AU officials -- Chairman Denis Sassou Nguesso, the president of Congo Republic, and commission head Alpha Oumar Konare -- are due to arrive in Abuja on Wednesday. Diplomats said this could indicate that the 2300 GMT (0430 IST) deadline, already put back by 48 hours, will slip again.
CHAD CRISIS The rebels took up arms in early 2003 in ethnically mixed Darfur, an arid region the size of France, over what they saw as neglect by the Arab-dominated central government.
Khartoum used militias, known as Janjaweed and drawn from Arab tribes, to crush the rebellion. The fighting has killed tens of thousands of people while a campaign of arson, looting and rape has driven more than 2 million from their homes into refugee camps in Darfur and neighbouring Chad.
Diplomats said one of the main stumbling blocks to a peace agreement was that Minni Arcua Minnawi, leader of the most powerful of the three rebel factions, was being undermined by some of his former allies because of a crisis in Chad.
Minnawi is a tribal ally of Chadian President Idriss Deby, who is battling an insurrection by fighters he accuses of fronting for Sudan. But Minnawi's friends in Chad accuse him of abandoning Deby and selling out to Khartoum, which makes it difficult for him to sign any deal.
Washington, which labels the violence in Darfur ''genocide'', is intensifying efforts to resolve the Darfur conflict.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on Monday for a robust UN force to bolster a 7,000-strong AU peacekeeping mission in Darfur. Khartoum has so far rejected the idea.
In Abuja, Zoellick joins US diplomats trying to engineer a last-ditch deal whereby the sides would trade concessions on two contentious security issues.
Under a US proposal, a section of the AU draft that requires the government to disarm the Janjaweed before the rebels lay down their weapons would be amended to better suit the government.
In return, Khartoum would accept a detailed plan for integration of specific numbers of rebel fighters into the Sudanese security forces. This is a key rebel demand.
REUTERS PM ND2322