U.S. and UK Diplomats Enter Darfur Talks as Deadline Slips

He was joined by Britain’s International Development Secretary Hilary Benn and top African Union mediators to negotiate an end to the three-year conflict devastating Sudan’s Darfur region.

“This means the U.S. government really cares. … They can put pressure so that we can get better terms,” said Abdelrahman Musa Abakar, negotiator for one of the rebel factions.

Zoellick said negotiations would continue on Wednesday, indicating that Tuesday’s midnight deadline would slip.

“I will be here tomorrow (Wednesday), beyond that I don’t know,” he told reporters.

On Sunday, rebels rejected an 85-page draft settlement that the Sudanese government had accepted earlier that day.

As part of the proposed peace deal, the government would disarm the Janjaweed, a pro-government militia composed mainly of Arab tribes, incorporate rebel fighters into the country’s army, and provide millions of dollars to rebuild the region.

“Despite all its shortcomings, this process has yielded a draft agreement which is the best the (rebel) movements will get ever,” said Alex de Waal, an adviser to the AU.

However, the Sudanese Liberation Movement and the Justice and Equality Movement, the two rebel groups at the talks in Abuja, have said that the document does not go far enough to meet their concerns.

Among their demands are the creation of a transitional authority for the region that would include rebel representatives and the inclusion of a third vice president from Darfur into the national government. Sudan’s current constitution only allows for two vice presidents.

“It left out critical areas as far as power sharing and the status of Darfur region. But I am optimistic something could be achieved within the next 24 hours,” said Ahmed Tugod Lissan, chief negotiator for the JEM.

However, Monday morning Vice President Ali Osman Taha, senior representative for the Sudanese government, left Abuja and returned the Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, making diplomats worried that another deadline would not be met.

The conflict in Darfur began in February 2003 when rebels from the region took up arms against the Sudanese government, which they saw as neglecting the impoverished region.

Since 2003, more than 200,000 people have died and another 2 million have been forced to flee their homes into refugee camps or neighboring Chad.

The U.S. Congress and former Secretary of State Colin Powell have declared the killing in Darfur as “genocide.”

Current Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has suggested that a U.N. force of 7,000 AU peacekeeping troops be deployed.

The Sudanese government has said it may accept U.N. peacekeepers to help resolve the crisis in Darfur once an agreement is signed.