KHARTOUM: Sudan’s president opened a conference on the Darfur conflict Thursday with a call for a national vision for peace in the desert region, though his rebel foes were absent from the gathering.
Rebel groups in the western Sudanese region dismissed the president’s three-day forum as an attempt by him to avoid prosecution at an international war crimes court where judges are considering a request to seek his arrest.
Up to 300,000 people have been killed and more than 2.5 million have been chased from their homes since fighting began in Darfur in 2003 with an anti-government rebellion. The chief prosecutor at the Netherlands-based International Criminal Court accused President Omar Al-Bashir in July of orchestrating a campaign of genocide in Darfur.
The court is considering the prosecutor’s request to issue an arrest warrant, and the judges said Thursday they asked the chief prosecutor for more evidence against Al-Bashir before deciding whether to issue an arrest warrant. They gave the prosecutor one month to provide additional material.
The national gathering brought together participants from a dozen political parties and civil groups in Sudan, and the inaugural session was attended by regional powers like the African Union and Al-Bashir supporters such as the Arab League, Egypt, Libya and Qatar.
A number of other mediators trying to shake loose the political stalemate over Darfur were also invited to Thursday’s session.
But absent from the launch of the “People of Sudan Initiative were the Darfur rebel groups, which a government official said had been invited. One group, the Justice and Equality Movement, said the forum was a “desperate attempt to garner support for Al-Bashir, the first sitting head of state to face genocide charges by the International Criminal Court.
The charges shook the Sudanese regime and many of the president’s supporters. Al-Bashir’s government has been lobbying regional groups to support a motion to freeze the court prosecution. Only the UN Security Council can ask the court to stop the process for a renewable period of 12 months. There is no clear consensus within the UN on how to proceed. Activists and Darfurians say recent gestures by Al-Bashir are designed to sidestep prosecution.
This new initiative is an attempt to “circumvent international justice, said Mahjoub Hussain, spokesman for another rebel group, the Sudan Liberation Movement-Unity.
Al-Bashir told the gathering of over 100 officials, Darfur tribal leaders and diplomats that he is determined to make this round of political action in Darfur the final one. He promised to bring back peace, set up fair and just trials, and committed $250 million for development to the region in the coming year.
We insist on reaching a final solution this time, based on the initiative and a broad national consensus aiming for a just and comprehensive and permanent solution, al-Bashir said.
Diplomats at the meeting said it will produce a set of principals to form the basis for negotiations with rebel groups.
The new mediator of the African Union-United Nations mission in the country has reached out to rebel groups in recent weeks, and Qatar has proposed hosting a reconciliation meeting, though no date has been set.
Nafie Ali Nafie, a presidential adviser who is responsible for the Darfur problem, said the initiative will form a good basis for dialogue with the rebels even if they are not present at the gathering.
We still hope they (rebels) will join the ranks, Nafie told reporters. This will help in discussing the Qatari initiative and with the joint mediator.
Also in attendance, Alberto Fernandez, the U.S. Charge d affaires in Sudan, expressed hope that the forum was a genuine reach for change.
If it is a true process, if this is the beginning of a true change, a substantive change in the way Darfur has been handled, then it will be supported by people. People will join, people will be eager to become part of it, he told reporters. But there is a problem. The government lacks credibility because of the last five years. There is doubt in the minds of many people.
A set of recommendations is expected to be announced Sunday. -Associated Press Writer Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report.