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Sudanese president tries to improve image
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Oct 30, 2008 - 8:59:59 AM

Sudanese president tries to improve image
Thursday, October 30, 2008

KHARTOUM, Sudan: Facing genocide charges from an international tribunal, Sudan's president has taken several steps recently to shore up his image. But some say the gestures are "too little, too late."

President Omar Al-Bashir's latest moves include holding a high-profile Darfur peace conference — which his opponents called a farce — and speeding up deployment of international peacekeepers in Darfur.

He also arrested an Arab militia leader charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Court — the same court that charged al-Bashir with genocide in Darfur. The government says the militia leader will be tried in a domestic court, but hasn't set a date or outlined the charges.

Many are dubious that al-Bashir's moves are more than an attempt to head off an ICC arrest warrant. The head prosecutor requested the warrant in July, and judges are expected to make a decision within weeks.

The Darfur conflict began in early 2003 when ethnic African rebels took up arms against Sudan's Arab-dominated central government, accusing it of discrimination. The fighting has killed up to 300,000 people and forced 2.5 million to flee.

Western and Sudanese officials say Sudan has been asked to show progress on several fronts, including speeding up the deployment of Darfur peacekeepers, improving humanitarian conditions and starting a credible peace process. However, it is unclear if progress in those areas would allow al-Bashir to avoid prosecution.

The U.N. Security Council is the only group that can ask the ICC to suspend its prosecution.

The most concrete step the president has taken is to speed up the deployment of a joint U.N.-African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur that took up its mission in January but has failed to get close to its full strength of 26,000 — partly because of bureaucratic stalling by the Sudanese government.

Since the ICC charged al-Bashir in July, the government has cleared a backlog of paperwork and allowed some peacekeepers to travel to Darfur by air, according to the mission. Those actions have helped increase the peacekeepers in Darfur to about 11,500, after stagnating at about 9,000 for most of the year.

But the Sudanese military also launched a new offensive in August against rebel-held areas in northern Darfur that the U.N. estimates has displaced some 40,000 civilians. The government says it is targeting bandits in the area who have attacked aid groups, but rebels have called the offensive a declaration of war.

Rebels say the recent military offensive conflicted with al-Bashir's call for peace at a high-profile conference in Sudan earlier this month. The meeting was attended by international and domestic supporters of the president, including Arab militia leaders suspected of carrying out much of the Darfur killing.

But rebels, key to any peace deal, boycotted the conference and said al-Bashir was not serious. They called the meeting a stunt to head off an arrest warrant.

"If mediators are serious about it, they have to force the regime to stop the killings and rape," said Abdulwahid Elnur, the exiled leader of the Sudan Liberation Movement. "The regime is ready to sign any agreement and then implement nothing."

Many in the West doubt al-Bashir will deliver a peace deal in time to head off the ICC, because he is surrounded by hard-liners who do not believe concessions would deter prosecution.

"You can't bring peace in two months, but you can change the reality in Darfur tremendously in two months," said a Western diplomat in Khartoum, speaking on condition of anonymity because it was not an official government statement. "To be willing to discuss things is very weak at this late stage. It is too little, too late."

But Sudanese officials insist they are serious about peace and are working to revise a 2006 peace agreement signed by one rebel group to make it more palatable to others.

The aim of the draft agreement is to bring the government and the fractured rebels together in negotiations the Gulf nation of Qatar has offered to host, said Mahjoub Faidul, a presidential spokesman. On Wednesday, the final draft was delayed for another week.

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