- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 11, 2004

KHARTOUM, Sudan — Two months after the Bush administration declared the atrocities in Darfur a genocide, the conflict shows signs of escalating, deepening a bleak humanitarian crisis despite weeks of progress in peace talks between Sudan’s government and rebel leaders culminating in agreements yesterday.

The talks in Abuja, Nigeria, ended yesterday with agreements on security and refugees, but no pact on a long-term resolution to the violence in the troubled region in western Sudan, according to the Associated Press.

A later round of talks, expected in mid-December, would work toward a political accord, delegates said.

The talks ending yesterday were the first of three rounds to reach even partial deals.

Sudan and the two main rebel groups signed two accords Tuesday, one promising aid organizations unfettered access to Darfur’s displaced, and the other banning “hostile” military flights over Darfur.

The accords follow a widely flouted April cease-fire.

The government and rebels agreed on a broad set of principles yesterday, including “the inalienable right of refugees and internally displaced people to return to their places of origins,” chief mediator Allam-Mi Ahmad said.

No political accord was signed, because of disagreement over rebel demands, including the Sudan Liberation Army’s call for a secular state, delegates said.

As the talks appeared to be heading toward some sort of progress, the specter of a peace deal accelerated efforts by government and rebel forces to consolidate their control over territory before an accord would force them to lay down their arms.

Concern over the stability of Sudan’s western Darfur region has heightened since last month after a string of violence: Two aid workers were killed by an anti-tank mine, 18 Sudanese Arabs were abducted by rebel fighters, dozens of trucks carrying food aid and medicine were attacked, their supplies looted, and Sudanese authorities began a campaign to bulldoze refugee camps and forcibly relocate thousands of people displaced by the 20-month-old crisis.

Tension also mounted after the Sudanese army reportedly resumed aerial bombardments of villages in Darfur. The United Nations and the African Union are still investigating those reports.

Despite the presence of African Union peacekeepers in the region — the first deployments of an eventual 3,000 — the increasing violence has turned much of Darfur into a “no-go” zone. The United Nations and many aid agencies have evacuated their workers and halted deliveries of food and medicine intended for up to 300,000 people in need, U.N. officials said.

“Darfur may easily enter a state of anarchy, a total collapse of law and order,” warned Jan Pronk, the U.N. envoy to Sudan, in a Security Council briefing a week ago. “If the negative trend is not reversed, it is a recipe for disaster.”

Several factors fuel the worsening crisis, including the resumption of peace talks, the end of Darfur’s rainy season and the arrival of new African Union peacekeepers, all within the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

“There are many reasons for the increasing violence in Darfur, but most of it is connected to the peace talks,” said Alfred Taban, publisher of the Monitor, Khartoum’s only independent newspaper. “The rebels are putting pressure on the government not to disarm them, and both of them are trying to get more control of Darfur before a peace agreement is made final.”

Mr. Taban said the U.S. presidential election might have played a small role in the escalation of hostilities by enabling combatants in Sudan to operate, however briefly, below the radar of the international community as it focused on the American balloting.

“The Sudanese government was hoping President Bush would lose the election, because there is the perception that Bush is forcing them to the negotiating table. If [Sen. John] Kerry had won the election, it would buy them time, at least a few months,” Mr. Taban said.

Aid workers and observers had warned as far back as August that Janjaweed militias and rebels would likely resume fighting at the end of the rainy season, when the seasonal rivers — called wadis — subside and many of the sand-and-dirt roads in Darfur’s vast desert become passable for the first time in months.

“It was expected that after the rains, it would be easier for soldiers and bandits to move around,” said Bettina Luescher, a spokeswoman for the World Food Program (WFP), a U.N. agency.

Bandits frequently attack and loot trucks chartered by the WFP, which deliver about 20,000 tons of sorghum, millet, maize, soybean and cooking oil each month to more than 1 million people left hungry and homeless by Sudan’s conflict, Miss Luescher said.

The presence of bandits has forced the WFP to abandon food deliveries to certain areas. In some areas not far from the western city of Nyala, residents and people displaced by the fighting have been cut off from food aid for six weeks.

The rise in attacks comes on the heels of one of the biggest peacekeeping deployments by the African Union, aided by nearly $200 million in contributions from the United States, Europe and Canada.

Still, many Sudanese in Darfur — Arabs and Africans alike — doubt the presence of African Union troops will quell the violence.

Critics say the force is too small to effectively monitor a region roughly the size of France, and that their mandate is too limited to protect 1.7 million refugees and prevent a rising death toll that has gone from 30,000 to 70,000 in the past two months.

The peacekeepers’ main job is to monitor a fragile cease-fire agreed to in April between Sudan’s government and rebels who took up arms against it in February 2003.

After Sudanese policemen swooped down last week on a camp for about 6,000 war-displaced people near Nyala, ostensibly to root out thieves in the camp, aid workers alerted African Union monitors, who are said to have stopped police from harassing residents and beating them with sticks.

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