HASKANITA, Sudan, Oct 29 (Reuters) - Camouflaged soldiers from Darfur's largest rebel group marched on Saturday to open a congress intended to unify a movement whose disarray has fuelled fresh violence and hampered relief efforts and peace talks.
"These are the people who taught the regime in Khartoum lessons in no less than 100 battles," Seifeddin Haroun, an organiser, said as leaders of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) met in a huge tent in the middle of Darfur's eastern desert.
Heavily armed troops and truckloads of young dreadlocked guerrillas provided security while up to 10,000 white-clad men and brightly dressed women surrounded the tent. A brass band played and SLA Secretary-General Minni Arcua Minnawi and Commander-in-Chief Juma'a Haggar inspected troops in front of the cheering crowds, many of whom had traveled for days through hostile territory to attend the meeting. Tens of thousands have been killed and more than two million chased from their homes during a 2-1/2-year revolt by mostly non-Arab rebels in Darfur. They accuse the Khartoum government of monopolising power and wealth. Around 200,000 refugees fled to Chad.
CALL FOR UNITY
The SLA congress, the first of its kind, aims to democratise the movement. Several hundred delegates were to elect a leader, discuss a new constitution and outline the SLA's position at African Union-sponsored peace talks in Nigeria's capital Abuja.
"We want to see this movement democratised and for the leaders to unite and overcome their differences," said tribal leader Tajeddin Ibrahim, from Labado town in South Darfur.
JEM (Justice and Equality Movement) are the other rebel group at the Abuja talks, but local commanders have turned on each other and the two rebel groups battle in the field. The violence and divisions between leaders have stalled the talks.
SLA Secretary-General Minni Arcua Minnawi and President Abdel Wahed Mohamed el-Nur are barely on speaking terms. Nur has refused to come to the conference.
"We have invited Abdel Wahed. A democracy is a democracy. This conference will choose a leader...If he doesn't come then we are going to elect another leader," said Ibrahim Imam, an SLA representative in the U.S.
U.N. officials say the violence has hindered vital aid to hundreds of thousands of refugees and restricted the movement for many of the 11,000 humanitarian workers in the remote region.
Haskanita village, a usually dozy place, was transformed as trucks laden with fuel, young soldiers with bleached dreadlocks and weapons invaded its main square. White signs with SLA slogans covered every fence, wall and tree trunk. Armed men sat waiting under the shade of the bright green bushes.
Sudanese from southern Sudan and even Arab tribes came to see what the SLA has to say.
"We want to see what they will do," said southern Dinka Salman Garang. "I'm not in the SLA but we want peace," he said.