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US pushes for Darfur deal before third deadline

Written by: Staff
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ABUJA, May 4 (Reuters) The warring parties from Sudan's Darfur region face a third deadline to make peace today with uncertainty surrounding US attempts to wrangle a few last-ditch concessions from the government and the rebels.

The government of Sudan has accepted a peace plan on security, power-sharing and wealth-sharing drafted by African Union (AU) mediators, but three Darfur rebel factions refuse to sign, citing objections to many provisions of the proposed deal.

The AU has twice put back by 48 hours a deadline for an agreement to allow last-gasp diplomatic efforts which are now being led by US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick.

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.

Zoellick has held several rounds of talks in the past two days with the Sudanese government delegation to try and obtain a few cherries for the rebels that could persuade them to sign.

Meetings went on late into yesterday night, and a US diplomat said early today that Zoellick's team was preparing to present to the rebels the result of discussions with the government.

''They're streamlining some language to shuttle over to the rebels,'' the US diplomat said.

JANJAWEED DISARMAMENT No details filtered out on what exactly the government may have agreed to give. The thrust of the US proposal was that Khartoum should accept a detailed plan for rebel fighters to integrate the Sudanese armed forces, a key rebel demand.

In exchange, a part of the draft deal that says Khartoum must disarm its proxy militias before the rebels lay down their weapons would be amended to better suit the government.

It is still unclear whether the rebels could be persuaded to sign.

They are split into two movements and three factions with complex internal politics and a history of infighting, making it hard for them to agree on any major decision. So far, they have insisted they were dissatisfied with many aspects of the draft.

For example, they want a post of Sudanese vice-president, a new regional government, greater representation in both national and local institutions, and individual compensation for victims of war. Mediators say they have been inflexible on these points.

Peace talks have dragged on for two years in the Nigerian capital Abuja while violence has escalated in Darfur to the point that aid workers cannot reach tens of thousands of displaced people.

The AU's top two officials, Chairman Denis Sassou Nguesso, the president of Congo Republic, and commission head Alpha Oumar Konare, were due to join the fray in Abuja today.

Diplomats said they could help because Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir wants to be AU chairman next year, which could give the AU bosses some leverage over Khartoum. Bashir lost out to Sassou this year because of the Darfur conflict.

In addition, several African heads of state were due to arrive for a health conference and Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo suggested to the AU chief mediator that they too could get involved in the Darfur talks to ratchet up the pressure.

REUTERS SY HS1515

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