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Last Updated: Friday, 24 August 2007, 21:44 GMT 22:44 UK
Darfur rebel leader's long game
Jonah Fisher
BBC News, Paris

Darfur rebel, Abdul Wahid El Nur, in Paris
Abdul Wahid al-Nur has moved his headquarters to Paris
When I first met Darfur rebel leader Abdul Wahid al-Nur he was sitting with a group of supporters in the courtyard of a state run hotel in the Eritrean capital Asmara.

It was the summer of 2004 and the Darfur crisis had just burst to international prominence.

Eritrea's capital was the place to be for rebels from Sudan's south, east and west.

Eritrean policy then was basically to help anyone committed to overthrowing the neighbouring government in Sudan.

Abdul Wahid was hardly inspirational. He rambled when interviewed and seemed totally unprepared for his new role at the centre of an international crisis.

It was just a few weeks later that the United States called the violence in Sudan's far west a genocide.

Three years have now passed, during which I spent most of my time in Sudan covering Darfur.

Endless mediation

But my second meeting with Abdul Wahid was in the French capital Paris.

Darfur rebel leader Abdul Wahid El Nur (archive)
I want to be the president of my country - and this is my right and the right of my people
Abdul Wahid al-Nur

A text message when I arrived at the Gare du Nord specified the name of the tourist cafe where we were to meet.

Security is understandably a concern - Abdul Wahid's brand of leadership has won him few friends outside Darfur.

Physically he has changed little - he still appears younger than his 39 years.

With a round build he looks more restaurateur than rebel leader.

Abdul Wahid's English has improved immeasurably - thanks no doubt to the endless rounds of mediation he has participated in.

Seven rounds of talks culminated in last year's Darfur Peace Agreement.

In a defining moment and despite huge pressure from western countries Abdul Wahid refused to sign.

Waiting game

At the time furious diplomats said he had made a huge mistake and that they would now treat him as a terrorist and an outlaw.

Janjaweed fighter on horseback in Darfur region, 25 April
The Janjaweed are accused of ethnic cleansing

But 15 months on Abdul Wahid looks like the only person who saw the Darfur Peace Agreement for what it was - a mess.

The only rebel leader who signed - Minni Minnawi - now sits marginalised and miserable in the annex of Khartoum's presidential palace.

In theory the most powerful man in Darfur, he has been successfully neutralised by the ruling elite surrounding President Omar al-Bashir.

The Janjaweed militia who perpetrated Darfur's worst atrocities show little sign of being disarmed so few displaced people feel safe enough to go home.

Abdul Wahid remained in Eritrea much longer than I did - finally fleeing in November 2006.

A rapprochement between Khartoum and Asmara had left him vulnerable.

He was under pressure to join a new coalition of rebel groups that Eritrea was promoting as a precursor to talks.

Few of Darfur's multitude of rebel factions have much credibility with Abdul Wahid - he dismisses most of them as being in the pay of Khartoum saying "one person with three mobiles and some cars is not a rebel movement."

Popular with victims

Paris is Abdul Wahid's new home - though he refuses to say what his exact living arrangements are.

African peacekeeping troops
Abdul Wahid says there will be no peace talks without peacekeepers

If his office is anything to go by he is not slumming it - a high ceilinged suite of rooms replete with ornate furnishing, gilded mirrors from floor to roof and a view out onto one of Paris' most popular tourist attractions.

It is a long way from the dusty Darfur town of Zalingei where he was born.

"A helpful friend" was lending it to him, was all he would say.

Though few commanders in Darfur now declare their first loyalty to be to Abdul Wahid, his continuing influence is founded on his popularity with the victims of Darfur's conflict.

When he rejected the 2006 peace agreement, hundreds of thousands of Darfuris dismissed it outright - most before they had even heard the details.

After many tried to pretend he did not matter, Abdul Wahid is now belatedly seen as the key to any future peace deal.

A conveyor belt of African leaders and international diplomats have visited him in Paris to try and persuade him to attend talks.

So far they have had little success.

'Security first'

At a recent African Union/United Nations (AU/UN) meeting in Tanzania designed to unite Darfur's many rebel factions a chair was pointedly left empty with Abdul Wahid's name tag in front of it.

"We have tried before to do security concerns and a political process at the same time as parallel processes. That failed," he tells me, mopping the sweat off his forehead.

"We need the security of our people first and then we can go to the next steps."

For Abdul Wahid that means no talks before the 20,000 strong AU/UN hybrid force arrives, and that is likely to be spring 2008 at the earliest.

When and if he makes it to talks - Abdul Wahid has a far reaching, some might say impossible, negotiating position.

Not content with improving the lot of his fellow Darfuris, he sees his rebel organisation - the Sudan Liberation Movement - as a national one with the goal of transforming Sudan from an Islamist dominated state into a secular democracy.

"I want to be the president of my country - and this is my right and the right of my people. But I will not become president on the bones of my people.", he said.

Abdul Wahid has been called many things, but no-one has ever accused him of lacking ambition.

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