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Tribal leaders preach peace in war-torn Darfur

5/9/2005 6:27am

By Opheera McDoom

NUMU, Sudan, May 8 (Reuters) - An Arab tribal chief accused by the United States of being a leader of a brutal militia is now touring Darfur with a message of peace and reconciliation.

Musa Hilal and other tribal leaders in the western Sudanese region, including some from non-Arab groups, are taking part in a government-sponsored initiative to persuade villagers displaced by two years of fighting return home.

They offer people in some of the worst affected areas money as well as beefed-up security to encourage them to go back to their homes in the vast and arid region they fled in fear.

"No matter what it costs, no matter what the price, we have to restore normality in Darfur and reunite Darfuris," he told people in the northern non-Arab village of Numu on Sunday.

Hilal said a succession of governments in Khartoum had failed to develop Darfur, an impoverished region long suffering from conflict between mostly Arab nomadic tribes and non-Arab farmers over scarce resources.

"We have to put our home in order from within," said Hilal, 44, wearing a white turban and a long white gown.

But the initiative, agreed in Khartoum last month, has failed to win support from the main guerrilla groups.

The leader of the rebel Sudan Liberation Movement, Abdel Wahid Mohammed Ahmed Nour, said those from his non-Arab Fur tribe, Darfur's largest, who had signed the accord did not represent his people.

Darfur rebels launched an uprising in 2003 against what they say is government discrimination in favour of Arab tribes.

The United Nations says Khartoum responded by arming Arab militias, known as Janjaweed, who now stand accused of a campaign of rape, murder and burning non-Arab villages.

Tens of thousands have been killed in the violence and more than two million have been displaced, creating what the United Nations calls one of the world's worst humanitarian crises.

Hilal rejected U.S. accusations he was one of the leaders of militias involved in the atrocities, saying he answered a government call to defend his land and people and joined the official Popular Defence Forces, a local security force trained by the army.


He and other tribal leaders, including some from the Fur tribe, agreed in April on ways to encourage people to return and to ensure that a shaky ceasefire signed a year ago is respected.

Their plan includes more police to boost security in Darfur villages and money and food to help people rebuild their lives.

On his way to the Fur village of Numu, Hilal travelled in an armed convoy, even though he said the roads are now safe. It drove past a mountain where he said the first rebel training camp was set up by young men from the Fur and Zaghawa tribes.

He was also accompanied by a local Fur leader, who said his people had not backed the insurgency. "These rebels did not consult the people before taking up arms so why would we support them?" said Ismail Abakr Ibrahim.

A crowd of about 50 people gathered next to the village market, a few stalls selling fruit and vegetables. Camels and donkeys lay near army soldiers protecting the village about 200 km (125 miles) west of the capital of North Darfur state, El-Fasher.

Hilal said the government had promised $16 million to help those displaced by the conflict. A local committee would be formed to record the names of those families who had displaced relatives to facilitate their return home, he said.

"Each large family will get 2.5 million (Sudanese) pounds ($1,000), medium-sized families 1.5 million and small families will get 1 million," he told the crowd of white-clad men and women dressed in gaudy red and pink wraps.

The leader of the village mosque, Mohamed Khatir, said Numu had suffered economically from the war but that it had not been directly touched by the violence.

"I have relatives who ran to Kebkabiya (a nearby town) because they had no food," he said. "They will come back once all those citizens who are carrying arms leave from here."

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