A statement issued by the mediators Tuesday said the Sudanese government and the rebels had agreed to halt all fighting before they returned to the negotiating table next month. A cease-fire was agreed to last April but it has been widely ignored by both warring factions.
The break-up of the peace talks in Abuja, Nigeria came as the British aid agency Save the Children pulled all its 350 staff out of Darfur after four were killed in violence between rebels and government forces.
“We have taken this decision with great reluctance,” Save the Children Director Mike Aaronson said. “We felt because we had fatalities, we could not run the risks anymore.”
Meanwhile, the United States called on U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to visit Darfur again, and the U.N. leader said the Security Council should consider new steps, such as sanctions, to stop the violence in the troubled western region.
The rebels walked out of negotiations after only two days claiming government troops had launched a fresh offensive. AU monitors in Darfur confirmed that fresh fighting was taking place. On Saturday, a helicopter used by the AU monitors to check ceasefire violations was hit by gunfire from unidentified attackers.
Maj. Gen. Festus Okonkwo, the African Union’s chief cease-fire monitor, said in Abuja on Friday that vast quantities of weapons had poured into Darfur in recent weeks, turning the arid region into a “time bomb that could explode at any moment.”
“The quantity of arms and ammunition brought into Darfur to meet the present build-up of troops in the region is so astronomical that the issue is no longer whether there will be fighting or not, but when fighting will start,” Okonkwo said.
Experts say the failure to deploy 3,200 AU observers and troops to Darfur has undermined efforts to improve security and grant wider access to humanitarian organizations operating inside Darfur. So far the AU has only managed to place 1,000 troops on the ground.
Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) said Wednesday that an aid worker was killed in Labado a town south of Darfur during an attack by government troops. The aid agency had operated a feeding center and clinic in Labado since September and said another 29 out of 38 of its local staff were unaccounted for following the fighting. MSF says it will continue its presence in Darfur, but called for aid workers’ neutrality to be respected.
During the latest 11-day AU-mediated session, the Sudanese government and the rebels agreed on little more than the need to stop fighting.
No firm date has been set for the January meeting.