Sudan-rebel peace talks begin amid UN call for ceasefire
The Sudanese government and rebels opened peace talks in Ethiopia on Thursday amid UN calls for a ceasefire to end three years of fighting that has affected over one million people.
The government said it was committed to ending the gruesome violence at the opening of the African Union-led negotiations in Addis Ababa, the first time the two sides have met since talks collapsed last April.
"We have come to this round of negotiations to achieve peace that would rescue our people from the plights of war and destruction," said the head of Khartoum’s delegation, Ibrahim Ghandour.
But the rival Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) party questioned the government's sincerity, accusing them of aerial bombardments and blocking humanitarian assistance.
"There is a lot of rhetoric from Khartoum that they are for change. It will be tested today," SPLM-N chief negotiator Yassir Arman told AFP.
The chief mediator of the talks, former South African president Thabo Mbeki, said both sides "will stay in Addis Ababa until an agreement is reached."
The opening of the talks came as the UN urged the Sudanese government and rebels to declare an immediate ceasefire so aid can reach more than one million civilians.
"Both parties in these talks are urged to declare an immediate cessation of hostilities allowing humanitarian teams to provide much needed support to these areas," the head of the UN mission in Sudan, Ali Al-Za'tari, said in a statement.
As the two sides met in the Ethiopian capital, government bombing continued, said Ryan Boyette, founder of the Nuba Reports website based in South Kordofan.
Boyette said a Sukhoi jet dropped several bombs at a school on Thursday afternoon, and then several more near a watering point for animals.
"We don't bomb any civilian areas," army spokesman Sawarmi Khaled Saad told AFP earlier Thursday, adding the military "will continue its job" until a ceasefire is reached.
There are no reliable figures for how many people have died in the Kordofan region and Blue Nile state, where the SPLM-N has been fighting for nearly three years, drawing support from among their non-Arab populations.
The UN says an estimated 1.2 million have been displaced or otherwise affected in the two areas which both lie on the South Sudan border.
- Ethnic diversity -
Sudanese authorities have restricted access to the war zones for aid workers, journalists and foreign diplomats, although relief has reached people in government-controlled zones.
There has been no aid access into SPLM-N areas from within Sudan since 2011, and a senior UN official last year said people were surviving on roots and leaves.
"I urge both parties to ensure that the welfare of civilians in these states is an absolute priority during these talks," Za'tari said.
In the western Darfur region, another ethnic minority rebellion has dragged on for 11 years.
Insurgents there have joined the rebels from Kordofan and Blue Nile in a "Revolutionary Front", fuelled by complaints of economic and political neglect of their far-flung regions by the Arab-dominated regime in Khartoum, led by President Omar al-Bashir -- who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in Darfur.
SPLM-N spokesman Arnu Ngutulu Lodi told AFP that Sudan's regions have been marginalised by an "elite" in Khartoum.
"We need to go to a more meaningful comprehensive settlement," he said late Wednesday.
The Ethiopian talks come two weeks after Bashir appealed for a political and economic "renaissance," with peace as the top priority. He repeated an invitation he made over the past year for a broad political dialogue, including with the rebels.
But diplomats say there was also something new -- acknowledgement by Bashir's 25-year-old regime of the country's ethnic diversity, even after the secession in 2011 of overwhelmingly non-Arab South Sudan.
The talks could be the start of a much broader national dialogue, drawing in opposition parties and other groups, to address discontent in outlying regions and ease pressure on a sanctions-hit, indebted economy starved of hard currency since South Sudan broke away with much of the country's oil reserves.
"The government, especially after the recent speech of the president, recognises that the first step to achieve the goals of the national consensus is to heal the wounds of the war," the pro-government Sudan Vision wrote in an editorial this week.