KHARTOUM, Sudan – U.S. governor and potential presidential candidate Bill Richardson drew on his relationship with the Sudanese president to press him Monday to open war-torn Darfur to United Nations troops and obtain a cease-fire.
Richardson met President Omar al-Bashir privately for nearly an hour of talks on the western region of Sudan, where nearly four years of fighting have displaced 2.5 million people and seen more than 200,000 others die of violence, disease and malnutrition.
Richardson emerged touting progress. He would not say whether al-Bashir gave him any commitments, but he said they would meet again Wednesday and issue a joint statement then.
"The meeting was good. We made some progress," Richardson told local reporters outside the president's mint green residence.
Back at his hotel, the New Mexico governor told The Associated Press that he and al-Bashir had discussed the proposed U.N. peacekeeping force for Darfur, a cease-fire, protection for humanitarian groups working in the region, growing sexual violence against refugees and a potential conference with rebel leaders.
Al-Bashir has refused to accept the U.N. Security Council plan to deploy 20,000 peacekeepers in Darfur, where an African Union mission of 7,000 troops has been unable to halt the violence between an array of rebel factions and government forces and allied militia.
His government has a record of appearing to accede to international pressure and then backtracking. Last month, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced that Sudan had provisionally agreed to accept a staggered version of the U.N. plan, but days later it became apparent that Khartoum would accept only small numbers of U.N. military and civilian advisers.
The government signed a peace agreement with some rebels last May in Abuja, Nigeria, but most rebel faction leaders rejected the accord. A cease-fire was quickly broken and subsequently violence increased in Darfur.
"We're going to press the rebels to participate not just in the Abuja process, but in the cease-fire and protecting humanitarian groups," Richardson said Monday. He said he and al-Bashir discussed how to bring into the peace process those who had refused to sign the Abuja agreement.
Richardson discussed the same issue later with Minni Minnawi, the leader of the rebel Sudan Liberation Movement that signed the agreement and subsequently became a presidential assistant.
Minnawi expressed disappointment that the government had not yet disarmed the pro-government militia, the janjaweed. He told Richardson that if al-Bashir's government did not honor its commitments, there would be regime change.
But Minnawi encouraged other rebel leaders to sign the Abuja agreement and said he would adhere to it.
"We are respecting the cease-fire and we will continue to implement it," Minnawi said in an interview at his home in Khartoum, where other Darfurians sat in tents and cooked food in the yard.
Richardson, a potential 2008 Democratic presidential candidate, also met earlier with Sudanese foreign minister Lam Akol, bringing along humanitarian workers that included one representative of the Save Darfur Coalition. The coalition organized the trip and has been instrumental in bringing attention to the crisis and criticism on al-Bashir's government.
Save Darfur brought Richardson to Sudan because the governor has successfully negotiated in the past with al-Bashir. In September, the governor persuaded al-Bashir to release a New Mexico journalist imprisoned in Darfur. Richardson also worked with al-Bashir in 1996 to negotiate the release of three Red Cross workers held hostage by Sudanese rebels.
Richardson's goal on this trip is infinitely more complicated. But there is broad skepticism around the globe about al-Bashir's willingness to cooperate on Darfur, given his record of supporting local militia attacks on innocent civilians.
The government's policy in Darfur has isolated Sudan, with even the African Union declining to allow al-Bashir to take its rotating chairmanship. Local newspapers gave unusually big play to Richardson's visit on Monday, highlighting his expected presidential bid.
Richardson hopes to make progress with the other parties in Darfur, where he plans to travel Tuesday. He is due to meet with rebel leaders, but has been warned that it is growing more difficult to determine who controls the increasingly fragmented people.
He also plans to meet with the commander of the overwhelmed African Union force, which is having difficulty controlling the growing violence.
Richardson is upbeat about his prospects. "I have to tell you, my record with Bashir is pretty good," the governor said after his arrival Sunday.
Over dinner late Sunday at Richardson's hotel, 13 humanitarian aid workers described increasing violence and tension in the camps. They expressed frustration that government bureaucracy and poor security is keeping them from getting to refugees — and Richardson said he raised both issue with al-Bashir.
The aid workers did not want to be quoted for fear of retribution, although they also assumed the room was bugged by Sudanese intelligence. One said 13 aid workers have been killed since a cease-fire was signed in July, more than 100 of their vehicles were stolen last year and over 400 have had to be relocated to protect their security in the last couple of months.
The fighting in Darfur began in February 2003 when the region's ethnic African population revolted against what they saw as decades of neglect and discrimination by the Khartoum government. The government sent in troops and the janjaweed was deployed.
The government denies supporting the janjaweed, which is blamed for the bulk of the atrocities, but UN and AU officials say Khartoum arms the militia and coordinates Sudanese army attacks with it.