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Under Western criticism for doing little to pressure Sudan to curb violence in Darfur, Egypt announced Wednesday that it is offering a new peace plan for the war-torn African nation.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit described the Egyptian proposal as "a road map" for a political process that would also "alleviate international tension."
Aboul Gheit said the plan would set certain goals to be met in a specific time table for bringing peace back to Darfur.
"In addition, it will include a set of incentives and punitive measures in order to ensure a fast agreement between the rebel movements and the government," said Aboul Gheit.
The minister offered little details about the plan but said it includes an international conference on Darfur similar to one held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in November. At that meeting Sudan accepted a hybrid African and international peacekeeping force in Darfur - though it has since balked at implementing the joint force of 20,000 peacekeepers.
Sudanese top opposition leader Mohammad Osman el-Merghani said Wednesday that Egypt plans to invite the warring factions in Darfur for a meeting in Cairo later this month.
Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, is believed to have a lot of influence with its southern neighbor, but it has been leery of pushing Khartoum for fear that the presence of foreign troops on its border would undermine its security. Egypt also fears that spillover of violence in Sudan could jeopardize access to Nile River water, which runs through both countries.
The Egyptian peace proposal also may have been sparked by a recent Saudi Arabian diplomatic overture on Darfur.
Last week, Saudi King Abdullah hosted a meeting between Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and Chadian President Idriss Deby in Riyadh, where the African leaders signed an agreement. As part of that agreement, the two countries - which share a 600-mile border - pledged to work together to quell the violence spilling over from Darfur and prevent opposition groups from staging cross-border attacks.
Sudan's government opposes secessions because much of the country's oil is in Sudan's conflict regions. While Washington is calling for the bigger peacekeeping force in Darfur, Arab countries, such as Egypt, are resisting the pressure.
Sudan's government has also played on Arab worries about outsiders by arguing that the arrival of UN troops in Darfur would signal the return of colonialism in Africa.
A peace agreement was signed last year between al-Bashir's government and one rebel group in Darfur, but it has failed to stop four years of fighting that has killed more than 200,000 people and displaced 2.5 million. Other rebel factions called the deal insufficient.
As part of the UN plan, UN peacekeepers - which Sudan long opposed allowing into Darfur, saying that would violate its sovereignty - would form a mixed force with the African Union, which now has 7,000 peacekeeping troops in the region. The new force would include 17,000 soldiers and 3,000 police officers.
Sudan's al-Bashir has since balked at accepting the plan's final phase which would allow the joint, full UN-AU force to deploy.
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