CAIRO, Egypt – Sudan agreed Monday to take part in peace talks to resolve the crisis in its western region of Darfur (search), where purportedly state-backed Arab militias are accused of killing thousands of African villagers.
Sudan's acceptance came a day after Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo (search), in his capacity as African Union chairman, offered to host the talks on what has been called the world's worst humanitarian crisis. Obasanjo invited the Sudanese government and rebel negotiators to meet in Nigeria starting Aug. 23, a spokesman for the African Union (search) said.
"We welcome and will participate in the talks that were announced," Sudanese Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail told reporters in Cairo on Monday. "We open the door wide to reach an agreement on the agenda and issues. We don't have conditions and we won't accept prior conditions."
Previous talks fell apart July 17 after rebels walked out, saying the Sudanese government had ignored existing peace agreements. Ismail said they failed because of the rebels "impossible and changing conditions."
Repeated attempts to get comment from the rebels on Obasanjo's invitation were unsuccessful.
The 18-month conflict began when black African factions in Darfur rose up against the Sudanese government, claiming discrimination in the distribution of the large, arid region's scarce resources. Since then, Arab militias purportedly backed by the government have gone on a rampage, destroying villages, killing and raping. As many as 30,000 people have been killed, and 1 million people have been forced to flee their homes, according to the United Nations and aid officials.
Ismail, the Sudanese foreign minister, said Monday that the death toll was exaggerated.
"The maximum of our estimation for those who died until now doesn't exceed 5,000, including 486 police that were killed or slaughtered by the rebels," Ismail said. "Those who say 30,000 or 50,000, we challenge them to get us their names, their tribes, and their graves where they are buried."
The U.S. Congress and some humanitarian groups have accused Sudan of genocide, and a July 30 U.N. resolution has threatened economic and diplomatic action against Sudan if it doesn't act within 30 days to rein in the militias, known as Janjaweed. Sudan denies backing the militias.
An Arab League (search) fact-finding team that visited Darfur in May concluded that alliances between Arab militia and the Sudanese government troops led to "the militia committing violations of human rights." The team called for an independent investigation.
Ismail said Sudan will meet the deadline set by the U.N. Security Council, and expressed confidence that the country will be able to solve the problem in Darfur.
"We plan to implement (the U.N. resolution). We think we can do it," Ismail said.
"We are not the party that created the problems there," he added. "We didn't start the war. But despite this, we feel that we are capable of solving this problem. The main element to solve the problem is the Sudanese themselves."
Ismail also praised the results of an Arab League foreign ministers meeting on Darfur held in Cairo Sunday at Sudan's request.
The 22-member Arab League, which rarely criticizes one of its own, rejected "any threats of coercive military intervention in the region (to end the crisis) or imposing any sanctions on Sudan."