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Violent Clashes in Sudan Threaten Darfur Peace Talks

BY Kristina Nwazota  September 23, 2005 at 5:00 PM EST

In an interview with the Associated Press, Jan Pronk, the top U.N. envoy to Sudan, blamed violence in Darfur in recent weeks on underfunded humanitarian programs and on a failure by outside nations to provide money and peacekeepers.

“That is creating a situation which is getting out of hand,” Pronk said. “Because the longer a situation like this is lasting, the more difficult it is to change it.”

An estimated 200,000 people have died in Sudan since fighting broke out in Darfur in early 2003, some from the violence, many from hunger and disease brought on by unstable conditions. Another 2 million have been driven from their homes into overcrowded, unsanitary camps in Chad and within Sudan.

The Darfur conflict has weighed heavily on a nation struggling to recover after a two decade-long civil war that pitted the mostly Islamic government in the north with rebels seeking independence in the south. The war ended in January with the signing of a peace deal between the Khartoum government and the main rebel group, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement.

The peace deal has produced a new power-sharing government composed of the ruling National Congress Party and leaders of the SPLM.

But while the North-South conflict seems to be settling, violence in the Darfur region is on the rise. Humanitarian organizations in Darfur have complained of attacks on aid workers and African Union peacekeepers — part of a 6,000-strong force deployed in the region — have reported violent clashes between government forces and rebels.

On Wednesday, Sudanese military officials said soldiers had quelled a rebel attack on the town of Sheiria, 45 miles northeast of the South Darfur state capital Nyala.

“The armed forces repulsed the attack of the aggressor forces, inflicted heavy casualties on them, and forced them to retreat,” army spokesman Lt. Gen. Abass Abdul Rahaman Khalifa told Sudan’s official news agency SUNA, according to the AP.

Sudan Liberation Movement/Army officials claimed their attack was a retaliatory assault against the government-backed Arab militia, the Janjaweed, which intruded on rebel territory and killed 30 people in a recent attack in Darfur, they said, Reuters reported.

Both sides — the Khartoum government and rebel leaders — hold the other responsible for the ongoing violence and accuse each other of deliberately aiming to derail the peace talks.

In an interview with the Online NewsHour, Sudan’s ambassador to the United States Khidir Haroun Ahmed said much of the violence in the country has been sparked by the SLM/A and the Justice and Equality Movement.

“There are crimes committed by the Janjaweed definitely, no doubt about that. … But, there is a great deal of violations committed by these two rebels groups,” Ahmed said. “They killed a number of tribal chiefs in the region. They’ve been in this business … of robbing these nomads from their camels and [cattle] for the last three years. So it’s not one-way traffic.”

The SPLM/A also accuses the government of politically and economically marginalizing Darfur’s mainly black population by withholding resources and neglecting the region’s infrastructure.

As tensions rise between the government and its opposition on the ground in Darfur, the African Union is struggling to keep negotiations civil in Abuja.

“We are appealing to both parties for restraint, because when things like this happen, they are going to affect the talks,” AU mediator Sam Ibok told reporters, according to Reuters.

The AU, along with the United Nations and the United States, hopes to create a wealth and power-sharing deal based on the declaration of principles signed by the two sides in July, and to return stability to the region in order to allow displaced civilians to return home.

“If you can get a stable peace agreement by the end of the year, you have the possibility … to put some of the population back into their villages,” Charles Snyder, senior representative on Sudan for the U.S. State Department, told the Online NewsHour.

Snyder said despite the ongoing conflict between the government and rebel forces, a compromise is possible and would more than likely coincide with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed as part of the North-South deal.

“If you look at what the agreement is about, it’s about the marginalized areas getting redress from a strong, central, hard — to put it politely — government that has kind of neglected, abused … over the years,” he said. “That same dynamic is exactly the problem in Darfur.”

And, though an AU spokesman said the attack on Sheiria had set negotiations back, Pronk expressed faith in the AU’s ability to move the talks forward.

“So far, the AU has been able to avoid an impact on the talks,” he said in an AP report. “People stay at the table — a year ago they would have left.”