The African Union-monitored negotiations between the government of Sudan and two main rebel groups, the Sudanese Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement, were delayed a week to allow the SLA to settle a dispute between two leaders who both claim to be the movement's president.
The two SLA leaders, Minni Arcua Minnawi and Abdel Wahed Mohamed el-Nur, said they would put aside their differences and negotiate as a unified group that would also include the smaller rebel group JEM. The SLA sparked the conflict in 2003 when it rebelled against the central government, accusing it of neglecting Darfur by monopolizing wealth and power in Sudan.
"We are going to enter the talks with one delegation ... I came here because I hope this should be the final round," Minnawi said Monday in an interview with Reuters.
Minnawi, who has boycotted previous rounds of talks, is considered a crucial negotiator because he commands loyalty from many SLA fighters on the ground.
Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir said the Khartoum government is committed to brokering a peace deal that would equally distribute wealth. But many observers doubt how serious the government would be about implementing an agreement, some calling the talks a charade that lacks any incentive for the government to negotiate.
Escalating violence against civilians and humanitarian workers and divisions within the rebel groups stalled previous rounds of negotiations, despite efforts from African Union, United Nations and United States negotiators. The sixth round of talks in Abuja broke up Oct. 20 because of the leadership dispute within the SLA and disagreement between rebel armies over a negotiation strategy.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called for a "framework peace agreement" by the end of the year as the only solution to end the violence, killing and rape in Darfur that have increased in recent months.
"The looming threat of complete lawlessness and anarchy draws nearer, particularly in western Darfur, as warlords, bandits and militia groups grow more aggressive," said Annan in his monthly report to the U.N. Security Council.
Yet international efforts to end the violence, including numerous visits by U.S. officials to help with the negotiation process, have achieved little, leaving much of the burden for negotiating and keeping to the peace to the AU.
And even if a breakthrough is achieved in Abuja, many worry implementing any pact may be problematic. Aid workers and observers say the AU, an organization only set up in 2002, lacks the resources to enforce a shaky ceasefire signed a year ago between the SLA, JEM and the Sudanese government. John Prendergast, the senior advisor for the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit conflict resolution organization active in Darfur said the AU-led negotiation process needs serious help from a U.S. or U.N. envoy.
"The international community needs to pull its act together. The AU is a poor substitute [for concerted international action]. The international community is hiding behind saying, 'African solutions for African problems,'" Prendergast told the Online NewsHour.
The AU has barely 6,000 soldiers to cover an area the size of France and lacks adequate funds to buy aviation fuel or pay its troops. In October, the AU suffered its first casualties in a year of operations when six AU personnel were killed after they ran out of ammunition while fighting a group of armed men who attacked a convoy.
Until recently, AU troops traveled on open benches in the back of jeeps leaving them exposed to attacks. The Canadian government paid for 105 armored personnel vehicles that began arriving in mid November.
Those troops, even with new supplies, have struggled to contain recent surges in violence that targeted refugee camps and aid workers. American officials say rebels groups hold much of the responsibility for the escalation but the janjaweed, an Arab militia group armed by the government at the start of the conflict, has also attacked refugee camps. The Sudanese government says it no longer sponsors the janjaweed but has shown little evidence to disarm it as required under the ceasefire agreement.
According to Prendergast at the International Crisis Group, the government of Sudan restrained janjaweed attacks earlier this year in response to increased international scrutiny. But as media attention of the crisis dropped off, janjaweed attacks resumed and Darfur descended again into one of the world's worse human rights emergencies, according to the ICG's assessment of the situation.
Most observers agree that the newly opened talks need to achieve some path toward a political peace or the situation in Darfur will only worsen. In addition to the growing threat of intensified violence, U.N. officials and humanitarian groups fear that if refugees cannot return to their lands to sow crops for next year's harvest, millions of people will continue to rely on outside help for food and security.