Monday, May 19, 2008

African Union Commission Chair, Jean Ping, Confident of Avoiding Chad-Sudan Conflict

AU chief confident of avoiding Chad-Sudan conflict

Sun May 18, 5:46 PM

KHARTOUM (AFP) - The head of the African Union, Jean Ping, said he was confident Sunday about a de-escalation of tensions between Chad and Sudan, but acknowledged that the "risk of retaliation" remained.

At the end of several days of shuttle diplomacy between the two neighbouring countries, Ping declined to point to any concrete signs of progress, but he urged reporters to "just believe" in his optimism.

"What we wanted to avoid is a clash between the two countries. I think there is a chance," he told a news conference in Khartoum, which was delayed two hours by his meeting with Sudanese President Omar al-Beshir.

"When we came, we saw a risk. The tension was high. Diplomatic relations were broken. Our duty was to avoid an escalation and to bring the two parties in a process of de-escalation. I told you I am confident so just believe me."

His talks with Beshir came three days after he met Chadian President Idriss Deby.

Ping's diplomatic efforts have been aimed at resolving tensions following an unprecedented rebel attack on the Sudanese capital by fighters from the western region of Darfur.

More than 220 people were killed in the rebel assault. Sudan accused Chad of backing the rebels and broke off diplomatic ties with N'Djamena. Chad sealed its border the following day.

Relations between Chad and Sudan have been strained since 2003 when war broke out in Darfur, sending hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees fleeing across the Chadian border and sparking UN fears of a regional conflict.

On the brink of a Sudan-Chad war

Andrew Heavens
Khartoum, Sudan
17 May 2008 11:59

Thousands of Sudanese people took to the streets of Khartoum this week to participate in a nationalist "victory" rally after Sudanese security forces repelled a shock attack on the capital by Darfur rebels.

Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir ramped up the rhetoric as he addressed the highly charged demonstration in the centre of the city, raising fears that the assault on Khartoum could escalate the conflict in Darfur and lead to open war with neighbour Chad.

Sudan accused Chad of masterminding last weekend's attack on Khartoum by 3 000 fighters from the Darfur rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).

Khartoum has cut off diplomatic relations with its western neighbour already and expelled Chadian embassy staff; both countries have stepped up security along their long and porous border.

Chad has denied the accusations and declared itself "surprised" at Sudan's decision to sever diplomatic ties.

On Wednesday Bashir launched stinging attacks on Chad's President Idriss Deby, calling him a coward, and on JEM leader Khalil Ibrahim, whom he called an "agent of Israel" -- a transparent appeal to Arab nationalism and widely held fears of foreign influence in Sudan.

Wearing military fatigues, Bashir led the mass rally in chants of "amil ya Khalil, amil amil li Israil [you are an agent, Khalil, you are an agent of Israel]" and vowed not to negotiate with the JEM "or any other traitors".

Khartoum's residents spent most of last weekend barricaded in their homes as the JEM attacked Omdurman -- one of the three cities that make up greater Khartoum -- using truck-mounted mortars and machine guns.

Heavy gunfire echoed throughout the city as Sudanese armed forces fought back with aerial bombardments and ground attacks.

Sudan's government claimed that it repelled the attack and conducted house-to-house searches for remnants of the rebel force throughout this week.

Human rights groups have raised alarm bells over reports of mass arrests, torture and detention and warned of a possible crackdown on members of the Zaghawa tribe -- an ethnicity shared by both Deby and Ibrahim.

Sudanese army sources said at least 220 people died in the assault -- the first that rebels from any of Sudan's many festering internal conflicts have launched on the capital in decades.

Dr Mutrif Siddig, Under Secretary at Sudan's foreign ministry, claimed officers arrested members of a "cell" that he said directed the attack from inside Khartoum's Chadian embassy. "We caught Chad's security attaché in the act of contacting the rebel forces," he said. "Chad was pushing them to take power and to inflict the maximum damage."

Siddig said the rebels received help from members of Sudan's "organised groups" -- meaning army and police -- but that all involved officers were arrested. "We are now going to strengthen our borders with Chad and will take any legal means to counter this incident."

The Darfur conflict started in 2003 when rebels took up arms against the government, accusing it of neglect. The United Nations says up to 300 000 people might have died since the government launched a brutal counter insurgency, backed by militia. Khartoum insists only 10 000 have died and blames the media for exaggerating the conflict.

Chad became entangled after rebel groups, including many with close ethnic ties to the Chadian leadership, set up camps on the Chadian side of the two countries' border. Increased tension between the two since then turned into a proxy war with each side arming rebels in each other's territories.

Peace efforts, brokered by the UN and the African Union, were in trouble before the attack, when JEM and other groups boycotted negotiations in October last year. JEM has clashed with government forces in western Darfur ever since.

According to a JEM statement made after the attack on Khartoum, the operation was launched to try to break the political stalemate in Darfur. Most commentators, however, agreed that the assault has left current peace efforts in Darfur in tatters instead.

"The peace process is completely out of the question," Sudan expert Alex de Waal told the Mail & Guardian. "It could lead to full-blown war -- the government will want to retaliate."

There are still uncertainties about what caused the JEM to launch its lightening attack, driving across hundreds of kilometres of desert and scrubland to take on the Sudanese army's hugely superior forces in the heavily defended capital.

Some observers said the attack amounted to a bloody public relations drive aimed at winning JEM some headlines and humiliating Khartoum's security-obsessed leaders. Others saw it as a straightfoward coup attempt.

"I believe this was a serious attempt at regime change -- however overambitious or foolhardy it might now seem," said Julie Flint, co-author with De Waal of a new book on the conflict, Darfur: A New History of a Long War. "All who know the JEM chairperson well say he genuinely believes in an uprising of the marginalised masses."

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