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Hope in Talks in Nigeria for Ending Darfur Crisis

Zoellick Sees Hope in Talks in Nigeria for Ending Darfur Crisis

Tells Senate hearing there are "no angels" in the region

By Jim Fisher-Thompson
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- Ending violence in Sudan's Darfur region, where more than 150,000 people have died in the past three years, is in the hands of negotiators for rebel factions and the Sudanese government who are now meeting in Abuja, Nigeria, Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick told a Senate hearing September 28.

Zoellick, who recently visited Darfur and other parts of Sudan, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that "AU [African Union]-sponsored peace talks between GOS [the government of Sudan] and rebels [fighting in Darfur] have made modest progress" since they began earlier this year in Nigeria.

The number two official at the State Department told Committee Chairman Richard Lugar (Republican of Indiana) that he hoped the talks – which resumed in Abuja September 16 -- would provide a lasting solution to the crisis in Darfur, which has displaced up to 2 million people, including 200,000 living in 12 refugee camps in neighboring Chad.

Even though the signing of a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in January between the Khartoum government and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) brought the 20-year-long North-South conflict under control, rebel factions in Darfur, such as the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equity Movement (JEM), still are battling it out -- with each other and with Sudanese government-backed militias called Jingaweit -- while negotiations continue in Abuja.

Zoellick told the lawmakers that although "large-scale organized violence has substantially subsided," with the Sudanese military having "pulled back" from Darfur, "Jingaweit and other militias have not been disbanded and continue to contribute to the violence." SLA/JEM rebels also have been active, he said, "attacking humanitarian convoys and fighting over livestock."

In July, parties at the Abuja talks, facilitated by former Organization of African Unity (OAU) Secretary-General Salim Salim, were able finally to agree to a declaration of principles, now used as a framework for further negotiations.

Pointing out that "there are no angels in this part of the world," Zoellick told the senators that a recent uptick of violence in Darfur might "possibly [be the parties] positioning for negotiations" in Abuja. And he said "a message" he wanted to convey strongly was that such a strategy would not be tolerated by the United States and definitely would be counterproductive.

Zoellick said the goal of U.S. aid, amounting to $1.9 billion since 2003, and U.S. military support, mainly airlifts for an AU security force that soon will number 7,700, is "to create a secure environment and political [and] tribal reconciliation so people can voluntarily return home safely, beginning in the first half of 2006"; about the time it is hoped the Abuja talks will have a successful conclusion.

Despite the recent death of John Garang, leader of the SPLM and the country's first vice president in the new government of national unity, Zoellick said he placed great hope in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement's establishment of the new unity government.

"The CPA creates a political and constitutional framework for sharing authority and [oil] wealth within which to end the conflicts in Darfur and other regions," he declared, adding that Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer would "be going out [to Sudan] in a few weeks to meet with the new [unity] government."

SENATORS RESPOND

Lugar said he was encouraged by Zoellick's "personal engagement in Sudan," adding, "Compared to a year ago, casualty rates in Darfur have fallen significantly and humanitarian assistance is reaching displaced peoples with greater consistency."

But he cautioned, "Even as we focus on Darfur, we must be cognizant that simmering disputes in the East [of Sudan] and the South remain a threat to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement."

After Zoellick outlined how the United States has contributed to the $4.5 billion in aid for Sudan pledged at the Oslo Donors Conference, Senator Chuck Hagel (Republican of Nebraska) said, "I share your positive sense of direction" for the peace process, but ultimately "the continent of Africa is going to have to deal with its problems."

Senator Joseph Biden (Democrat of Delaware) said he hoped progress would continue in Darfur because "with so many problems here at home -- after [hurricanes] Katrina and Rita, not to mention Iraq -- the American people understandably may want us to refocus our efforts and our resources."

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