Darfur peace talks will continue, say UN and AU

( AFP ) - The United Nations and African Union said on Sunday there was no question of interrupting the Darfur peace process launched in Libya on Saturday despite calls by rebels there to do so.

"I refuse to state that the peace process is interrupted," UN Darfur envoy Jan Eliasson said at the end of Sunday's session. "The train has left the station for the road to peace.

"The question is now many passengers will get on the train. We are ready to receive them," he told a news conference in reference to rebel groups that are boycotting the Sirte talks.

Eliasson said mediators would continue closed-door talks on Monday between rebel movements present at the talks and the Sudanese government delegation in an effort to end four years of violence in the western Sudanese region.

Earlier UN diplomats spoke of a three-phase peace process, the first being advance consultation. This would be followed by internal consensus building and then by actual peace negotiations.

Although the Khartoum government declared a unilateral ceasefire at the start of the meeting on Saturday, key rebel groups have boycotted the talks.

"We can't talk about success or failure at this stage. The most important thing is that the process has begun," AU spokesman Noureddine Mezni said earlier.

Mezni told AFP that the chief negotiators, the UN's Taye Zerihoun and the AU's Sam Ibok, still hope to bring the boycotting rebel factions to the table.

"We will now begin the process of planning the way forward," AU envoy to Darfur Salim Ahmed Salim told reporters. "The next step will be how to create the necessary conditions which will enable the process of negotiations to start.

"We should not try to put fixed deadlines but at the same time we cannot afford an endless process," he said.

Only six minor rebel groups have turned up in Sirte and they have sent "second rank" representatives with little power, a UN diplomat acknowledged.

In a joint statement, the six factions called on the mediators to set a timeframe for further negotiations with the rebel groups that are boycotting the peace talks to try to persuade them to take part.

"We need an additional period of time which will be set by the mediators to continue negotiations with those who are absent and prepare the appropriate conditions" for substantive talks, said the joint statement read by Tejeddine Niem of the breakaway Justice and Equality Movement faction of Abu Garda.

"To reach a just and comprehensive peace... we want no significant armed group to be sidelined," the statement added.

"We are continuing our efforts and contacts with our absent brothers to convince them to join the peace talks so that we do not end up with an outcome like in Abuja" in 2006, where one rebel group signed a peace deal with the government and two other groups declined to do so.

African Union Peace and Security Council commissioner Saeed Djinnit said that "everything will be done in terms of reconciliation at the same time as moving quickly towards a peace agreement and the need for the groups to prepare themselves as necessary for negotiations."

Addressing Saturday's opening of the conference, host Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi said the absent Sudan Liberation Movement/Army and the Justice and Equality Movement were "fundamental" to peace in Darfur.

"I consider their leaders to be my sons, even if they are disobedient, but without them we cannot make peace.

"I see that this conference must stop here," he said, before launching a broadside against the talks' sponsors, saying the UN and AU were not competent bodies to resolve "a tribal conflict."

The opening session also heard a warning from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that rebel leaders who stayed away from the talks had much to lose.

"I am disappointed that some movement leaders have chosen to stay away from Sirte today. To them, I wish to say that the door remains open, but that if they continue to stay away, there is much they stand to lose," said a message from Ban delivered by Eliasson.

"The UN and AU believe that all Darfurians should be represented, and hope that they will be," he added.

The other rebel factions attending the Sirte talks include the JEM breakway faction of Lazraq, the Group of 19, the National Movement for Reform and Development and the United Revolutionary Forces Front.

But another eight rebel factions, including the most important, are staying away, casting a pall over the bid to end slaughter which is estimated to have killed 200,000 in four years and displaced two million. Khartoum puts the death toll much lower.

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