(photo credit: Associated Press)
The Sudanese government confirmed Sunday that it is ready to sign a draft agreement with rebels from its Darfur region, but the rebels said they still have reservations about the deal.
The two groups were meeting on the day the deadline set by the African Union for a resolution to two years of talks expired. The discussions aim to end fighting that has left about 180,000 people dead and forced 2 million from their homes.
"The government wishes to confirm its position to formally accept this document and its readiness to sign," said Magzoub El-Khalif, the head of Sudan's delegation. AU mediators distributed the draft last week.
But a spokesman for the rebels said they were still not satisfied with the draft.
"We have some reservations about the draft peace agreement," said Ahmed Hussein, a spokesman for one of the two rebel factions, the Justice and Equality Movement. "We are going to forward our reservations to (mediators) after our meeting."
Another rebel faction, the Sudan Liberation Movement, has asked for an extension to the Sunday deadline.
Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo has met with the heads of each delegation. Rebels on Saturday said he had leaned on the groups to sign the deal.
"We met President Obasanjo. He was urging the parties to put initials on the documents," said Ahmed Tugod, a leader of the smaller and newer JEM faction.
Wednesday's initial draft of the agreement addressed complaints from Darfur rebel groups that they had been neglected by the national government. It called for the president to include a Darfur expert, initially nominated by the rebels, among his top advisers.
The draft, noting that Darfur was "historically deprived" and had suffered severely from the war, also called for the establishment of a rehabilitation fund to which international donors would be asked to contribute, suspension of school fees at all levels for students from Darfur for five years and the adoption of a national anti-poverty plan.
In the draft, mediators also proposed that the people of Darfur vote by 2010 on whether to create a single geographical entity out of the three current Darfur states, which could carry more political weight.
Decades of low-level tribal clashes over land and water in Darfur erupted into large-scale violence in early 2003 when some ethnic groups took up arms, accusing the east African nation's Arab-dominated central government of neglect.
The central government is accused of responding by unleashing Arab tribal militias known as Janjaweed to murder and rape civilians and lay waste to villages. Sudan denies backing the Janjaweed.
The draft agreement calls for the disarmament of the Janjaweed. It also calls for some rebels to be integrated into the national army and security forces and others to be disarmed.
The U.N. says the Darfur fighting has caused one of the world's worst humanitarian disasters and chaos has now spread into neighboring Chad, where hundreds of thousands of Darfur refugees are sheltering.
A small detachment of AU troops have so far failed to stem the violence in the region the size of France.