Friday, January 12, 2007

Ceasefire in Darfur

The government of Sudan has agreed a sixty day ceasefire with the troubled rebel province of Darfur. The news was announced by a US politician visiting the country. Governor of New Mexico Bill Richardson said Sudan President Omar Hassan al-Bashir had agreed to the start of a peace process. Richardson and al-Bashir issued a joint statement on Wednesday saying both sides in the Darfur conflict had agreed to a 60-day cessation of hostilities.

Richardson also announced that both sides had agreed to attend a peace summit to be sponsored by the African Union (AU). While it is not yet clear when the ceasefire will commence, the joint statement represents success for Richardson’s mission. He won other concessions too from the central government such as allowing the rebels to call a conference in the field under the jurisdiction of the AU, allowing foreign journalists visit Darfur after a two-month ban and removing the requirement for exit visas for aid workers.

The next thorny issue to resolve is putting a peacekeeping force into Darfur. UN Special envoy Jan Eliasson is also in Sudan and he held talks with the president to discuss a way forward. Eliasson is trying to get commitment from the various parties for the deployment of a hybrid UN and AU peacekeeping force. He has already travelled to AU headquarters in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa and will meet Darfur rebel leaders next. He said President al-Bashir had agreed with him that the conflict could only have a political solution and not a military one. Last month al-Bashir told the UN Sudan supported the plan to eventually replace an understaffed AU mission with a joint UN-AU force of about 17,000 troops and 3,000 police officers, though subsequent reports say he may have backed away from this position.

Darfur is an arid and impoverished area in the far west of Sudan. Rebels from the region's ethnic African community took up arms against the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum in February 2003. The rebels accused the government of oppressing non-Arabs in favour of Arabs. In revenge for rebel attacks, the Government armed a counter-insurgency force of itinerant Arab-speaking tribes who became known as the Janjaweed. The word Janjaweed is an Arabic colloquialism which means "a man with a gun on a horse”. With the support of the Sudanese army, these men with guns on horses became a fearsome militia and launched reprisals against Darfur farmers. The US has accused Janjaweed of genocidal atrocities and over 200,000 people have died while another 2.5 million have fled their homes in the last four years.

Yesterday’s joint announcement has yet to be confirmed by the rebels themselves but Richardson said he had been to Darfur earlier and met rebel commanders who have agreed to the ceasefire. There are two main rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the smaller Justice for Equality Movement (Jem). Both groups, like the Government they are fighting, are Muslim. The SLA was established after a 1987 famine when the central Government armed an Arab alliance to oppose African farming communities. The SLA united the farmers of Fur, Zagawa and Masalit against the Government. Jem have their roots in the black Islamist community of western Sudan. Jem leaders were originally part of a government faction but lost their place at the seat of power after their sponsor Hassan al-Turabi was sacked by President Al-Bashir. Though SLA and Jem are ideologically different they have co-operated in the fight against the government and Janjaweed.

The war in Darfur has spilled over the border into Chad and the Central African Republic. Civilians fled across the border into refugee camps already crowded from earlier fighting in the area. In June 2006, the UN Security Council asked the U.N. Peacekeeping Department to explore protection of the camps, and an initial assessment mission was sent in late November. The situation in Chad was deemed too dangerous for the UN with fighting on the ground stopping the mission from visiting the border camps. The report recommended against a peacekeeping force in Chad until rebel groups stop cross-border incursions. The UN is now reassessing the report.

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