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Darfur rebel faction sees progress in peace talks

Written by: Staff
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ABUJA, May 12 (Reuters) A rebel faction from Sudan's Darfur region, under intense pressure to join a peace agreement, today said its overture to the government had received a positive response and a breakthrough looked possible.

Abdel Wahed Mohammed al-Nur of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) has so far refused to endorse a peace deal signed a week ago by rival SLA factional leader Minni Arcua Minnawi and by the Sudanese government to end three years of bloodshed.

The deal's rejection by Nur and by a smaller rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), has raised fears that it would not end the war. The agreement was greeted with violent demonstrations in several Darfur refugee camps.

Nur wrote to African Union (AU) mediators late on Wednesday asking to reopen discussions with Khartoum and pledging to sign the accord if key demands were addressed in a separate document.

''There is a very positive reply from the AU and a positive reply from the government. This might lead to a breakthrough in the negotiations,'' said Ibrahim Madibo, a close adviser to Nur. They are still in the Nigerian capital Abuja, where the talks that led to the May 5 peace deal took place.

Nur's main demands are for more compensation funds for Darfur from Khartoum, greater political representation for his group, and greater involvement in mechanisms to enforce a ceasefire and disarmament plan foreseen in the accord.

The SLA and the JEM took up arms in early 2003 accusing the Arab-dominated central government of neglecting Darfur, an arid region the size of France in western Sudan.

Khartoum backed militias known as Janjaweed, drawn from Arab tribes, to crush the rebellion. Tens of thousands of people have died and more than 2 million have fled their homes in the ensuing campaign of murder, looting, rape and arson.

DELICATE DISCUSSIONS Diplomats say discussions involving Nur, Minnawi, the government and international mediators are under way but few details have filtered out as the situation is delicate.

Nur and Minnawi loathe each other but Minnawi wants Nur to sign because he does not want spoilers undermining the accord. However, it would be hard for him to swallow any concessions made to his rival after he has already signed the agreement.

Nur is weak militarily but his endorsement of the agreement is important because he is a member of the Fur tribe, Darfur's largest.

Minnawi has more fighters but he is from the smaller Zaghawa ethnic group.

Hostility between ethnic groups in Darfur has fuelled the conflict.

The AU considers May 15 a deadline for adding any new signatures to the peace settlement, as its Peace and Security Council meets that day and must afterwards formally present the document to its international guarantors.

Minnawi is in Chad, trying to win support for the accord from President Idriss Deby, who is battling insurgents in a crisis that has become interlocked with the Darfur conflict.

Deby accuses Sudan of backing the Chadian rebels, a charge Khartoum denies. Meanwhile, the Darfur rebels from the Zaghawa tribe have rallied around Deby, who is also Zaghawa.

However, there have been tensions between Minnawi and Deby and observers fear that the Chadian president could act as a spoiler for the Darfur peace deal unless he is pacified.

REUTERS PR BD1632

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