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Last Updated: Saturday, 29 October 2005, 23:11 GMT 00:11 UK
Darfur rebels' unity talks falter
SLA troops
The SLA congress is supposed to heal divisions
A unity congress of the biggest rebel movement in Sudan's Darfur region has made a difficult start, with one of its two faction leaders refusing to attend.

Abdul Wahid said the meeting was insignificant and amounted to nothing without the presence of key leaders.

The aim of the congress is to elect new leaders and decide on the direction of stalled peace talks in Abuja, Nigeria.

The SLA was formed in 2002 to defend black African farmers against the government-backed Arab militia.

Some two million people are estimated have fled their homes and at least 180,000 are thought to have been killed during the crisis.

Show of force

Hundreds of SLA fighters paraded with their weaponry during the congress held in Haskanita, a rebel stronghold in south Darfur.

The rebels have recently been accused of attacking aid convoys.

The congress was their opportunity to show that they are an organised political movement and a military force to be reckoned with, says the BBC's Jonah Fisher in Haskanita.

The SLA's rank and file had called for the congress to unite the leadership in the hopes it would inject new life into the stalled African Union-sponsored peace talks.

Disagreements within the SLA have contributed to the failure of six rounds of talks with the Khartoum government amid continuing violence.

United front hope

The congress is supposed to heal divisions says our correspondent but Mr Wahid, who is also the SLA chairman, has refused to attend.

In an interview with the BBC, Mr Wahid said the meeting amounted to nothing without the presence of key leaders.

But his rival, Meni Minawi, the SLA secretary general, said he still hoped to work with Mr Wahid to avoid a split of the movement, which would weaken their position against Khartoum.

"We hope that this conference will come out with a decision for unity so we can face this regime in a more organised way," Gen Minawi told Reuters news agency.

But when the delegates at the congress vote for a new leader they will have a difficult decision to make, says our correspondent.

If they replace Mr Wahid, he says, the movement will almost certainly divide and if they retain him the rebel leadership will remain paralysed by divisions.

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