By Caroline Drees
NAIROBI, Nov 8 (Reuters) - The United States failed to bridge gaps between fractious Sudanese rebels on Tuesday but urged the parties to overcome their differences ahead of peace talks this month or risk losing international support.
Discord in the main rebel group, the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM), has been a key stumbling block at previous rounds of negotiations with the Khartoum government to end the rising bloodshed in the Darfur region, which has claimed tens of thousands of lives and forced 2 million from their homes.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, whose government has called the violence genocide, had hoped to heal fissures at talks with rebel leaders in Nairobi ahead of the next round of peace talks in Abuja on Nov. 21.
Fears of a deeper rift mounted last week when SLM members elected a new president after the incumbent failed to stand. Highlighting the squabble, both factions briefly walked out of the Nairobi talks, arguing over who should represent them.
"It's clear that the different elements of the SLM are going to have to come together in some fashion, which only they can determine, if the Abuja peace negotiations can proceed successfully," Zoellick told reporters after talks with SLM leaders in Nairobi.
He said he had sought to explain to the rebels, "Look, at some point you have to take responsibility for your own people and while you're bickering, people are dying."
Both Abdel Wahed Mohamed el-Nur and the newly elected Minni Arcua Minnawi claim the presidency of the group, and Zoellick had been due to meet both men in the Kenyan capital Nairobi.
But the day got off to a bad start when Minnawi failed to show up, sending his deputy instead. Nur's group was already there, and when the two factions came face-to-face at the negotiating table, Minnawi's delegation walked out, swiftly followed by Nur and his aides.
COAXING REBELS TO TALK
U.S. officials shuttled back and forth between the rebels -- many in suits, but others in fatigues and camouflage-mesh headscarves, some clutching notepads.
After about 30 minutes, Zoellick coaxed them back to the table, telling them through his aides that the United States and international allies wanted to help, but if the rebels failed to rejoin the talks, he would "draw his own conclusions".
"Since the day started with the fact that I had a hard time getting them in the room together, I think there was some progress by getting them to listen to my ... message and listen to the views of our international partners," Zoellick said after the talks, also attended by delegates from several European nations and the African Union.
He said he had also told the rebels the United States could exert more effective pressure on Sudan's government to take the Abuja talks seriously if the rebels presented a united front.
It remains unclear who will head the SLM team at peace talks, and outside the conference room both factions insisted they were the legitimate rebel leaders.
"In the movement we are well united, but there is a faction calling itself the new chairman," said Nur.
But Seifeddin Haroun, a spokesman for the absent Minnawi said: "They can say whatever they want ... We are the real leadership of the SLM."
Some analysts fear rifts in the SLM leadership may have escalated violence in Darfur as local rebel commanders exploit uncertainty on the ground and jockey for position. An April 2004 truce has frequently been broken, and Zoellick said more violence risked unravelling a very fragile situation.
Non-Arab rebels took up arms in early 2003 accusing the Arab-dominated central government of marginalising them.