- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 2, 2006

From combined dispatches

ABUJA, Nigeria — Mediators from the African Union said last night that they would delay a deadline for peace talks on Sudan’s Darfur region until tomorrow at midnight, the second 48-hour extension of the negotiations.

An AU spokesman said Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo had requested the extension so that a group of African heads of state who are due today in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, the venue of the talks, could participate.

Earlier yesterday, the United States’ No. 2 diplomat joined the talks and President Bush called Sudan’s leader, as mediators struggled in vain to get rebels and the government to strike a deal before a midnight deadline.

Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick headed into a conference room with mediators from the African Union and delegates from the warring parties.

Mr. Zoellick, who was joined in Abuja by British official Hilary Benn, later shuttled among the groups, listening to complaints and making suggestions for compromise, said a member of the U.S. delegation.

Rebels stuck to their demands for concessions on security and power-sharing. The Sudanese government said it approved a draft of the peace deal first circulated last week at the talks hosted by the African Union.

“We asked [Mr. Zoellick] to put pressure on the government side so that we can have a balanced paper — and then we can sign it,” said Ahmed Hussein, a spokesman for the Justice and Equality Movement, one of the Darfur rebel factions.

“We told him that our demands are very limited. We are asking for the rights of the people of Darfur within a united Sudan,” he told reporters after meeting Mr. Zoellick.

Neither Mr. Zoellick nor Sudanese government officials, who earlier took the line that there was nothing more for them to do, were available for comment.

The African Union originally had set a Sunday deadline, but it extended the talks by 48 hours when the rebels rejected its draft agreement.

Mr. Bush called Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on Monday night about the importance of peace in the Darfur region, according to the official Sudan News Agency and Frederick Jones, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council.

During the call, Mr. Bush urged Mr. al-Bashir to send Vice President Ali Osman Mohammed Taha, who left Abuja on Monday, back to the peace talks, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said in Washington. Mr. Bush also told Mr. al-Bashir to accept a United Nations’ peacekeeping mission backed by NATO logistics and training for Darfur.

Mr. Bush has described government-backed attacks on civilians in Darfur as genocide.

The three-year-old conflict has led to the deaths of at least 180,000 people and the displacement of more than 2 million. The peace talks in Abuja have dragged on for two years.

Mediators repeatedly have expressed frustration at the warring parties’ unwillingness to compromise and at their inability or unwillingness to respect a cease-fire.

The African Union has selected five African heads of state to help ensure that any agreement on Darfur is accepted by all parties, said Basile Ikouebe, Republic of Congo’s U.N. ambassador, whose country is the chair of the 53-nation bloc.

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