Page last updated at 20:01 GMT, Tuesday, 17 February 2009

A step forward for Darfur peace?

Jem leader Khalil Ibrahim (centre) and his brother Jibril Ibrahim (left)
Darfur's rebels have divided loyalties

By Amber Henshaw
BBC News

An agreement between the Sudanese government and Darfur's most active rebel group is a step in the right direction to ending the six-year conflict, but there is still a long way to go.

Darfur - a desert region roughly the size of France - has about seven significant rebel factions, who took up arms claiming the region had been neglected and marginalised, but are divided in their loyalties.

There have been many broken agreements in the past and there are huge obstacles ahead.

The government wants to fragment the opposition
SLM-Unity's Sharif Harir

The accord is a declaration of goodwill, with confidence-building measures between Khartoum and the Justice and Equality Movement (Jem) intended to pave the way to more substantial peace talks over the next few months.

Some experts have serious doubts about whether the accord can be turned into a significant peace settlement for Darfur.

"The proof will be in what happens next," says Sudan expert Alex De Waal.

For many months Jem - which controls areas of north and west Darfur - has insisted that it only wants one-to-one talks with the government. Jem claims it is the only serious rebel movement in Darfur.

The agreement, signed in Qatari capital Doha on Tuesday, essentially shows the government's endorsement of that position, says Mr De Waal.

And this, he says, could lead to other rebel factions uniting against Jem.

Khartoum elite

But Sharif Harir of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLM)-Unity group says Khartoum intends to divide and rule.

May 2006: Khartoum makes peace with main Darfur rebel faction, Sudan Liberation Movement; Jem rejects the deal
May 2008: Unprecedented assault by Jem on Khartoum
Jul 2008: ICC calls for arrest of President Bashir
Nov 2008: President Bashir announces ceasefire
Nov 2008: ICC calls for arrest of three rebel commanders
Feb 2009: Army claims its captured key town of Muhajiriya
Feb 2009: Khartoum and Jem sign a deal in Qatar

"The government wants to fragment the opposition.

"This cannot lead to peace. SLM Unity will not join these talks. The people of Darfur have paid dearly and deserve more than is happening in Doha."

He believes the deal reveals Jem's close links with Khartoum's elite.

Jem leader Khalil Ibrahim had strong ties with Islamist Hassan al-Turabi, whose National Islamic Front (NIF) instigated President Omar al-Bashir's 1989 coup.

Jem has tried to distance itself from Mr Turabi in recent years after he fell out with the president.

"Many Jem leaders were part of the government in the past and now they are going back home," says Mr Harir.

This sentiment is echoed by one of Darfur's most popular leaders - the Paris-based leader of an SLM faction, Abdul Wahid Mohammad Ahmed al-Nur.

In his opinion this is just a deal between Islamic fundamentalists who are using the people of Darfur to reconcile their differences.

He says his faction will not enter into talks until certain conditions are met, namely security in Darfur before any negotiations and the disarmament of the pro-government Janjaweed.

Looming indictment

These talks, he claims, are a government tactic to avoid the International Criminal Court indicting the country's president.

Displaced Darfuris
This agreement is a great boost to the ongoing efforts for refugee relief
Government negotiator Nafi Ali Nafi

This indictment - if it goes ahead - would be another major obstacle to the talks moving forwards and making any significant progress.

The chief prosecutor of the ICC has called for an arrest warrant for President Bashir on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity for alleged atrocities committed in Darfur.

A decision by the ICC pre-trial chamber judges is expected soon.

Most experts agree that in reality the Qatar agreement is not likely to have much impact on the ICC, but it will have a big impact on what happens next in Darfur, and in Sudan more widely.

Senior Sudanese official Mohammed el-Mahadi Mandour el-Mahadi says that an ICC arrest warrant for President Bashir would make it "very difficult" to continue with the negotiations.

Both sides of the Qatar deal have been at pains to emphasise the plight of the 2.2 million people who have been displaced by the conflict.

"This agreement is a great boost to the ongoing efforts for refugee relief. It will help the refugees return to their villages voluntarily after the government provides them with all the necessary infrastructure," says government negotiator Nafi Ali Nafi.

But is the looming ICC decision that could eventually decide their fate.

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