The Sudanese government and rebels from its troubled western region of Darfur on Tuesday launched a new round of peace talks in the Nigerian capital after a main rebel group overcame leadership divisions.
In his opening remarks in Abuja, Salim Ahmed Salim, chief mediator from the 53-member African Union, warned that the situation in Darfur had been deteriorating as parties continued to drag the peace talks after more than one year of negotiations.
"The conflict as we know continues to affect millions of Dafurians especially women and children. The suffering has to stop. The moment of truth for all Sudanese, indeed, gathered in this room has arrived," Salim said.
"It should now be clear to all that there can not be a military solution to the crisis. To pretend or act otherwise is merely to prolong the suffering and agony of the people of Darfur," he said.
Six rounds of peace talks under the auspices of the African Union have so far failed to strike a deal, and both the Sudanese government and Darfur rebels repeatedly violated a ceasefire agreement signed in April last year in Chad.
But the international community still hopes the seventh round, which will continue to center on the thorny issues of power and wealth sharing as well as security in Darfur, will become a decisive one.
Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, also chairman of the African Union, lamented at the opening ceremony that the delay in harmonizing positions had taken a toll on the lives of civilians, resulting into the violation of ceasefire agreements.
"This is the last time to receive you for this particular purpose and we fervently hope that this round will be most decisive as the final round," said Obasanjo, who was represented by his Foreign Minister Olu Adeniji.
Mohammed Tugod, chief negotiator for the rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), on behalf of the two rebel groups at the talks, affirmed that the various groups will work hard to ensure the seventh round concludes all the previous discussions on Darfur.
"We have come with full determination and will to find a lasting solution," he said.
The African Union-sponsored talks had been due to start on November 21 but were postponed for "logistical reasons" amid a leadership rift among the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM), the other main rebel group in Darfur.
Earlier this month, The SLM elected Minni Arkoi Minawi as its new leader, replacing Abdelwahed Mohamed al-Nur, who boycotted the election conference and slammed it as "illegal".
They however pledged to put aside their differences and work together at the Abuja talks with Khartoum following efforts made by the AU mediation and international partners in the past one month.
A statement from the African Union said on the eve of the Abuja talks they will set up two joint committees to draft this common platform and consider "ways and means to achieve total reconciliation of the SLM leadership." Both the men attended Tuesday's opening ceremony but did not give speeches.
The SLM and JEM took up arms in Sudan's arid Darfur region in February 2003, accusing the government of negligence. Many people have been killed in the conflict and more displaced.
(Xinhua News Agency November 30, 2005)