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 Darfur rebels to meet in Geneva; demand Ethiopia's exclusion

NAIROBI, 21 Jul 2004 (IRIN) - Leaders of two rebel groups operating in Sudan's war-torn Darfur region are to meet peace mediators from the African Union (AU), Chad and the United Nations on Thursday in Geneva, Switzerland.

"The meeting, in support of the African Union-led process, will provide the first opportunity for the AU to engage with the leadership of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) in discussions on modalities of the peace talks," said a statement issued by the Geneva-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, which is hosting the meeting.

A spokesman for the centre, Andy Andrea, told IRIN that the closed-door meeting would be a discussion on "where, when and how" to conduct peace talks. He said the "dialogue process" would help the mediation team - consisting of the AU, Chad and the UN - in their planning for future peace talks.

An earlier attempt to hold talks aimed at finding a political solution to the 17-month conflict in Darfur, ended at the weekend in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, before the government and rebels had held any formal discussions.

Both rebel groups had issued a series of preconditions to political talks, including the disarmament of the Janjawid militia; respect for the 8 April ceasefire; an end to impunity for the perpetrators of crimes and an inquiry into allegations of genocide; unimpeded humanitarian access; release of prisoners of war; and a "neutral" venue for future talks, which did not include Ethiopia.

A spokesman for the Sudanese government, Ibrahim Ahmad Ibrahim, said "the demands of the rebels are unacceptable". He said the demands showed "disrespect to the African Union". "It is a delaying tactic, the rebels are not serious," he added.

Andrea said the meeting was expected to be held on Thursday afternoon and that he hoped it would "feed in" to the AU-led peace process.

Minni Arcuo Minnawi, Dr Sharif Harir and Abd al-Wahid Muhammad Ahmad from the SLA had confirmed their attendance, as well as Dr Khalil Ibrahim and Uthman Fadil from JEM, he told IRIN.

According to the London-based Justice Africa think-tank, a number of obstacles to peace in Darfur remain: "Challenges to the peace process include the lack of political consensus in both the government and rebel camps, lack of coordination between political and humanitarian negotiations, and the likelihood that as hundreds of thousands of Darfurians stay in refugee camps, the rebel position will become radicalised and intransigent," it said in a recent briefing paper.

"The main obstacle, however, is a dilatory approach by the government, which is showing a distinct lack of urgency about dealing with the political issues in Darfur," it continued.

On the rebel side, it said, its rejection of Chadian mediation - Chad mediated talks that led to the 8 April ceasefire - was no surprise, but their failure to cooperate with the AU had no obvious rationale. There were suspicions of divisions within the rebels, and also that some of their leaders and their advisers believed in a military solution, Justice Africa reported.