Darfur conflict in last stages
Khartoum - The six-year Darfur conflict is almost over, Sudan's new pointman for the thorny dossier said on Thursday, inviting a key rebel leader exiled in France to seize a "historic opportunity" for peace.
"The way I see the conflict, I see that it is in its final stages, I see peace coming. It's not exactly and strictly around the corner but I can see it," presidential adviser Ghazi Salaheddin said in an interview.
The United Nations says up to 300 000 people have died and 2.7 million have fled their homes since ethnic minority rebels in Darfur rose up against the Arab-dominated regime in Khartoum in February 2003.
Sudan says 10 000 have been killed.
The region is also rife with deadly clashes between tribes disputing sparse natural resources such as grazing land and water, and bandits who roam the desert highways of this vast area that is home to eight million people.
Preliminary peace talks, the latest in a series of previously failed efforts to end the conflict, are taking place in Doha between the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), the best-equipped group, and the Sudan government.
"Hopefully, if the negotiations focus now on the political framework and also on the ceasefire agreement, that would allow us to make some progress," towards peace, Salaheddin said.
But the JEM rebels prefer the talks to focus on a prisoner exchange, with more than 100 of its fighters so far sentenced to death for an unprecedented attack on Khartoum's twin city of Omdurman in 2008.
The head of the Sudan Liberation Army, Abdelwahid Mohammed Nur, also a member of Darfur's main ethnic group the Fur, has so far refused to leave his exile in Paris to take part in peace talks, seeking major concessions such as guarantees on his future government role first.
"The Fur people are very important elements in the peace process," said Salaheddin, who on Thursday was beginning a three-day tour of Darfur.
"And we have to find a way of bringing them on board. And I think Abdelwahid has an historic opportunity which he should not miss to be seriously engaged in the talks.
"I think it is in his best interest and the best interest of its people that he be more flexible and seize the chance.
"It is the citizen in the end who should feel the peace. We should not focus on the leaders only. The leaders are important but they are no longer leaders if they cannot lead their people and if they cannot convey to them the new spirit," he said.
Important signal of change
Salaheddin took over responsibility for the Darfur file two weeks ago from presidential adviser Nafie Ali Nafie, who has had to concentrate "day and night" on Sudan's general election planned for February 2010.
"Ghazi is a different kind of person. He is very much a conciliator," according to Sean O'Fahey, a specialist in Darfur history at Norway's Bergen University.
"The fact that he has been appointed as Khartoum's representative for Darfur is an important signal of a change of policy. Nafi Ali Nafie pursued a hardline policy, Ghazi will seek compromise and reconciliation."
Despite his apparently liberal credentials, Salaheddin still rails against the International Criminal Court which in March issued an arrest warrant against President Omar al-Bashir for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur.
"The government reacted in a very restrained way," he said. It was "the stupidest thing ever to be done by the ICC and by its prosecutor and the countries that support the ICC.
"They have to realise that they have undermined the peace process not only in Darfur but in southern Sudan as well," he said, referring to ongoing tensions in the south despite a 2005 peace deal that ended a bloody decades-long conflict there.