Darfur rebels suspend peace talks over attacks
Darfur rebels suspended formal peace talks in Nigeria on Monday to put pressure on the government to halt an offensive in the vast desert region, delegates said.
Rebel negotiators said they would not leave the Nigerian capital Abuja immediately, and were still open to informal consultations, but that the formal talks would not resume until the situation on the ground improved.
"We are suspending the talks until the situation has changed and there is a clear commitment that the Sudanese government will stop the offensive," said Bahar Ibrahim, a member of the rebel Sudan Liberation Movement.
The African Union, which is mediating the talks, said attacks had tripled in frequency since September and were now occurring daily in Darfur, where about 1.6 million people have been driven from their homes.
The 53-member pan-African body blamed both sides for violating a cease-fire, but said they were working to keep the rebels at the talks, which are trying to seek a political agreement after earlier deals on aid and disarmament.
"There is no justification for a suspension," said African Union chairman Sam Ibok.
The government also urged the rebels to stay at the conference which began on Friday. "Only negotiations and talks will solve the problems," said government spokesman Ibrahim Mohammed Ibrahim.
The African Union had set a Dec. 22 deadline to conclude talks on a declaration of principles including power sharing, wealth sharing, security, demobilization and reintegration.
The AU said in a presentation on Monday that cease-fire violations had risen from 12 in September to 53 in the 40 days since the start of November.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said "We are certainly very concerned about the level of violence in Darfur."
"We think both parties have been responsible for violence and both parties need to abide by the commitments they made to a cease-fire agreement."
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said last week Darfur was plagued by banditry, rape and village burnings with 2.3 million people in desperate need of aid. The rebels took up arms against the government in early 2003 in protest at what they said was Khartoum's marginalization of the western region.
About 1.6 million Darfuris have fled their homes since February 2003 in fear of attack by Arab militiamen who were mobilized by the government as auxiliaries in a campaign to crush the rebellion.
But Khartoum says the attacks are carried out by outlaws and denies responsibility for their actions.
"There is a clear policy by Khartoum to play for time and deflect pressure from the international community while using the militia to ethnically cleanse the region," said Tom Cargill of London's Royal Institute of International Affairs.
The United States, which has failed to get sanctions imposed on the government, has called the campaign genocide.
The African Union has sent 900 cease-fire monitors to Darfur, a region the size of France, and expects to reach the full complement of 3,300 troops by the end of the year.
Human rights campaigners have complained of the slow pace of deployment amid the renewed fighting.
The State Department's Boucher said the United States had supported the deployment of AU forces in Darfur and noted that Nigerian, Senegalese and Gambian troops would arrive soon.
"We do recognize that African Union planners in Addis Ababa have been working through a very challenging task in getting the troops organized and equipped for this mission.
Progress was being made, he said "It's just, I think, not as fast as everybody would have liked."