Darfur peace talks made little headway as Sudanese insurgents insisted they would not lay down their weapons until pro-government Arab militiamen stop targeting largely black African civilians in their country's troubled western region.
The rebels' refusal Tuesday to disarm came after a senior Sudanese official rejected the idea of an African peacekeeping mission to Darfur (search), where more than 30,000 people have been killed in an 18-month conflict and an estimated 1.2 million pushed from their homes.
"We're an independent movement and we're fighting for our people and our rights. This force is our guarantee, how can we disarm them?" said Abdelwahid Muhamed El Nur, chairman of the Sudan Liberation Army (search) rebel group.
The talks in Nigeria are an attempt to resolve the crisis in Darfur before the U.N. Security Council's Aug. 30 deadline for Khartoum to disarm the Arab militia known as the Janjaweed (search) or face economic and diplomatic sanctions.
In the Janjaweed campaign of violence against Darfur's black Africans — who like the Arabs are Muslims — armed horsemen swept into villages, killing and raping. Sudan denies backing the Janjaweed, but many accuse it of using the militiamen to put down the rebels and strengthen the Arab hold on the region.
"The Janjaweed are carrying out ethnic cleansing and genocide. If there is a security arrangement, disarmament will come gradually. But now we are not ready to speak about disarmament," El Nur said before the African Union (search)-sponsored talks got under way Tuesday.
Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo (search), who is also the AU chairman, pressed both sides to compromise, saying rebel disarmament is a key to lasting peace while warning the government against resisting an international presence in Darfur.
"One thing that will be a real disaster is for the international community to feel absolutely dissatisfied with the handling of events by the government of Sudan to the extent that they will have to unleash more than even what we are asking for," he told reporters.
"That would be a tragedy ... for the people of Africa," he said without elaborating.
Sudanese government representatives to the talks did not speak with reporters.
But a senior Sudanese official on Monday dismissed an AU proposal to send nearly 2,000 peacekeepers to Darfur. It was an apparent setback to the international community's hopes that the union could quickly devise an African solution to the conflict, which the United Nations has called the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
The African Union has 150 troops from Rwanda in Darfur protecting some 80 monitors observing a largely ignored cease-fire between the government and rebels. But the troops are operating under a vague mandate that does not spell out how far they can go to protect targeted civilians.
Obasanjo said all sides at the talks had agreed on an agenda and that the conference would continue — despite being originally planned for only a single day. He did not say how long the talks would last.
In Darfur on Tuesday, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said it is critical the government establish "safety and security across Darfur and get the political process going." He spoke from Abu Shouk, a sprawling refugee camp set in desert and scrubland more than a mile from the town of al-Fasher in Darfur.
The rebels at the talks also complained that the government was refusing to address the political causes of the conflict.
"We ask them [the government] clearly: 'Have you taken the strategic position to engage us politically?' We have the answer that the government is not ready," said Ahmed Hussain Adam, a spokesman for another Darfur rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement (search).
The violence in Darfur stems from long-standing tensions between nomadic Arab tribes and their African farming neighbors over dwindling water and agricultural land. Those tensions exploded into violence in February 2003 when two African rebel groups took up arms over what they regard as unjust treatment by the government in their struggle with Arab countrymen.
Aid groups and both houses of U.S. Congress have called the crisis in Darfur "genocide," but the AU and the United Nations have stopped short of calling it that.