Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir signed a ceasefire deal on Tuesday with the main Darfur rebel group, the Justice Equality Movement (JEM). The ceasefire is intended to pave the way for a broader peace deal in the region. A number of Darfur's armed groups begun informal talks in Qatar on Wednesday, attempting to find a common platform to engage the Sudanese government and end the seven year conflict. The Liberation and Justice Movement, a bloc made up of ten smaller Darfur factions, hoped to soon forge an agreement of its own with the Sudanese government.
The talks, which are sponsored by Qatar, are expected to offer Darfur's JEM rebels positions within government as part of a future peace deal to end hostilities in western Sudan. Meanwhile, Qatar's Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalida has pledged a contribution of $1 billion to fund reconstruction in Sudan.
The power-sharing agreement has been welcomed by the international community, with the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon hailing the move as 'an important step towards an inclusive and comprehensive peace agreement for Darfur.'
The conflict in Darfur has pitched black Fur, Zaghawa, and Masalit tribesmen against Arab militias backed by the Khartoum government, climing the lives of up to 300,000 civilians from the fighting and consequent famine and disease. The UN estimates that 2.7 million people have been displaced.
The openSecurity verdict: The success of negotiation, effective mediation and conflict resolution in Sudan depends on honest concessions and the application of provisions set out in the peace agreement signed in Doha. Previous ceasefires have been short-lived. Already, JEM has accused Sudan's army of attacking its positions near the Chad border since an initial version of the latest agreement was signed on Saturday. Khartoum has denied the accusation. Questions remain about how power will be distributed in Darfur between Khartoum and rebels as well what will happen to refugees displaced as a result of the fighting. It is not yet clear what will happen to JEM's own armed forces and whether they will become part of the Sudanese army or be demobilised. The peaceable reintegration of rebels into society will determine the success of any long-term peace, order and stability in Darfur.
Whilst JEM and other rebel factions are participating in talks, some groups have refused to enter into talks with the Sudanese government. The Sudan Liberation Movement (SLA), the first group to take up arms against Khartoum, has shunned the Doha peace talks, claiming they are 'ceremonial' and ineffective. Some analysts suggest that if JEM fighters are integrated into the Sudanese armed forces, the military position of the SLA could worsen considerably. If JEM gains prominence, it could push other rebel groups to violence and instigate rivalries with other Darfur factions thereby instigating a further round of violence.
With national elections expected in April, the Sudanese government will be pressed to negotiate a final settlement between JEM and the government by mid-March, an ambitious target according to mediators and analysts. Tuesday's framework agreement is only three pages long, though it contains a long list of subjects for subsequent talks. It is doubtful so many agreements can be reached in so little time. JEM has already asked Khartoum to postpone elections in Sudan, though such a move will spark controversy and conflict in other parts of the Sudanese political arena. One challenge among many will be to bring Arab militias who fought on the side of Khartoum into compliance with any comprehensive peace accord. The first real test of the value of the provisional deal will of course come on the ground, as the displaced, peacekeepers, relief workers and civilians wait to see if the security situation improves at all.
Neighbouring Chad has acted as a broker in the talks between JEM and Khartoum. In the past, Sudan has accused Chad of providing weapons and safe haven for JEM rebels. Earlier this month however, Chad and Sudan agreed to end their long-running proxy wars, saying they would no longer arm or shelter each other's enemies. Some analysts have suggested that the improvement in diplomatic relations between the two neighbours could be the driving force behind the new JEM-Khartoum deal, with Chad pressing JEM to seek reconciliation with Sudan's government. If JEM is only acting under duress, the long-term durability of a peace deal will be on shaky ground since it will be reliant on continued good relations between the cantankerous neighbours.
For now, the new peace deal will likely deflect attention from the International Criminal Court's case against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for his role in alleged war crimes in Darfur. Equally, human rights abuses committed by rebel factions and Janjaweed militia groups are not likely to be subject to investigation as part of ongoing peace agreements, though the way in which justice is administered and violations are dealt with will be critical to the success of reconciliation efforts underway in Sudan.
Ailing Nigerian leader returns
Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua has returned home after three months' treatment in Saudi Arabia, sparking fresh international concern over renewed instability in the major oil exporter. The 58-year old leader has been receiving treatment for heart and kidney problems. His absence had created a power vacuum in Africa's most populous nation and sparked demonstrations in the nation's capital, Abuja, where protesters demanded a constitutional order on his absence and evidence about his true state of health.
According to the BBC's correspondent in Abuja, Yar'Adua and his circle have suffered a massive loss of trust within the country, parliament and their own party. In Yar'Adua's absence, key ministers were locked out of decision-making, creating an atmosphere of uncertainty about whether the president was even alive. It was not immediately clear on Wednesday when Yar'Adua would take the helm again. A weekly cabinet meeting which was likely to be dominated by discussion of his sudden return was postponed, officials in Abuja said.
Escalating dispute over Falklands Islands goes to UN
A diplomatic offensive against oil exploration off the contested Falkland Islands intensified today as Argentina prepared to take its case to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Yesterday, Buenos Aires won unprecedented support from other Latin American states at the Rio Group summit in Mexico over its demand that Britain stop the drilling in waters near the islands. Argentina's foreign minister, Jorge Taiana, will today be meeting with Ban Ki-moon to discuss the matter. The Times newspaper has said that a resolution is set to be tabled in the UN general assembly condemning Britain for allowing the owner of the British rig, Desire Petroleum, to begin drilling 60 miles north of the islands after Argentina announced new shipping controls.
The British foreign secretary, David Miliband, however insists that the exploration for oil in the region is 'fully within international law' and rejected Argentinian claims, adding that 'British sovereignty in respect of the Falklands is absolutely clear in International law.' Although both sides have played down the prospect of renewed military conflict, the UK has sent a submarine to supplement its routine military presence in waters off the Falklands and late last year upgraded air defences in the area.
Family of US activist to sue Israel
The family of the pro-Palestinian activist Rachel Corrie, who was killed in Gaza seven years ago by an Israeli bulldozer, are to bring a civil suit over her death against the Israeli defence ministry. The case, which begins on 10 March in Haifa, northern Israel, is seen by the activists' parents as an opportunity to put on public record the events that led to their daughter's death in March 2003. The family's lawyer, Hussein Abu Hussein, said the court must decide if Corrie's death was an accident, as the Israeli army has previously maintained. If the Israeli state is found responsible, the family will press for damages. Four key witnesses – three Britons and an American – who were at the scene in Rafah when Corrie was killed are expected to give evidence in the case.
Elsewhere, the decision to declare the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel's Tomb national heritage sites has sparked off a row between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Yesterday, President Mahmoud Abbas warned of a 'religious war' over Israel's decision, whilst the armed Palestinian group Islamic Jihad on Tuesday threatened to launch attacks within Israel. Senior Hamas officials meanwhile have called for a third Intifada, a popular uprising, over the decision which they believe will restrict Palestinians' access to the holy sites. On Wednesday, Israeli President Shimon Peres attempted to calm tensions by stressing that Israel is not interested in 'monopolising' the sites.
Turkish officers charged over coup plot
Seven senior Turkish military officers were formally charged on Wednesday over an alleged plot to topple the Turkish government. They include four admirals, a general and two colonels, some of them retired. The seven were among more than forty officers arrested on Monday over the alleged 2003 ‘sledgehammer’ plot to stir up chaos in Turkey in order to justify a military coup. The move has heightened tensions between Turkey's secular nationalist establishment and the ruling Islamist AK Party. The government has been accused by secularists of trying to undermine Turkey's secular system through gradual Islamisation. The increased political tension has affected investor confidence, with the Istanbul stock index falling 5.6 percent this week alone.
India reports border shooting ahead of talks with Pakistan
Indian border guards say they came under fire from Pakistani on Wednesday ahead of the first official talks between the two nuclear-armed neighbours since the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The alleged shooting took place in the Samba area of south Kashmir, with Indian forces claiming one of their personnel was injured. Pakistan has denied that its troops opened fire. There has been a spate of clashes in the past few months along the line of control, the de facto border between the two countries. In the latest such incident, three Indian soldiers and three suspected militants were killed in a 24-hour gun battle in Sopore, 55km northwest of Srinagar, Kashmir's main city.