Sudan pledges to disarm Arab militias
Sudan has pledged to disarm Arab militias who have driven more than one million Africans from their homes in the Darfur region and to accept human rights monitors in the remote western area.
United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan secured the promise at talks in Khartoum with President Omar Hassan al-Bashir and other Sudanese leaders, highlighting what the U.N. says is the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
"The government of Sudan commits itself to ... immediately start to disarm the Janjaweed (Arab militias) and other armed outlaw groups," Sudan said on Saturday in a joint communique with the U.N. signed before Annan left Khartoum after several days of talks.
The United States, which sent Secretary of State Colin Powell to Khartoum this week, raised the possibility on Friday of sanctions against Sudan if the government did not stop the militia attacks.
The Bush administration has circulated a draft resolution at the United Nations that would impose an arms embargo and travel ban on the Janjaweed, but it does not mention action against Khartoum.
Sudan said its written commitments were offered voluntarily and not because of any outside pressure.
A spokeswoman for the rights group Human Rights Watch was sceptical about the government's pledges of cooperation, telling BBC radio: "The Sudanese government has made other promises and rarely honours what it promises to do ... it takes a lot more pressure ... I doubt they will honour what they've agreed to."
Two million caught in fighting
Some U.S. officials and rights groups say the Janjaweed are carrying out an ethnic cleansing campaign against black Africans. Some 10,000 to 30,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the Darfur crisis in the oil-producing country.
Long-running tensions between nomadic Arab tribes and African farmers over scarce resources intensified when a revolt erupted last year. Rebels accuse Khartoum of arming the Janjaweed, a charge the government denies.
The U.N. has said two million people have been caught up in the fighting and warned thousands could die of disease and hunger unless a massive aid operation was set up before the upcoming rainy season begins. About 200,000 refugees have fled into Chad.
The communique said Sudan would suspend visa restrictions for aid workers and restrictions on their equipment.
"The remaining obstacles to relief work should be done within the next days and hours really," said U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland.
Sudan also committed itself to deploy human rights monitors to document abuses by all sides in Darfur and said it recognised the urgency of holding peace talks with rebels.
African Union (AU) monitors in Darfur are authorised only to investigate violations of a shaky ceasefire signed by the two rebel groups and Khartoum on April 8.
Africa's umbrella organisation on Friday invited the government and the rebels to talks in Addis Ababa on July 15.
One of the two rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM), said it wanted the government to disarm the Janjaweed before talks.
"We welcome any peace talks," said SLM chairman Abdel Wahed Mohamed Ahmed al-Nur. "(But) we want the government to disarm the Janjaweed, respect the ceasefire and then it would be a good step for us to start talks."
The other rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement, was not immediately available for comment.
A senior African Union (AU) official said Darfur posed a major test of the organisation's effectiveness as a peacekeeper.
"We have been slow in reacting to situations," Said Djinnit, AU commissioner for peace and security, told a news briefing in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa before next week's annual summit of AU heads of state.
"We are realising that (Darfur) is a test case for the African Union," he said of the two-year-old organisation that replaced the largely ineffectual Organisation of African Unity.
Djinnit said the AU had already sent 23 observers to Darfur to monitor the ceasefire and that more would be departing shortly, possibly accompanied by what he called a "protection element" of peacekeepers that Sudan has rejected in the past.
"This option is still on," Djinnit said, adding a final decision on sending AU troops would depend on the security situation on the ground.