KHARTOUM, Sudan – U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir said Thursday that new peace talks to end the four-year conflict in Darfur will start Oct. 27 in Libya.
A joint communique issues by the two leaders after their second round of talks in Khartoum stressed the importance of reaching a political solution to the conflict that has left more than 200,000 people dead and 2.5 million uprooted from their homes.
Ban has pressed hard during his first trip to Sudan to get the splintered rebel groups back to the negotiating table. His joint announcement with al-Bashir signaled that a date and venue have been set — but the real test will be whether rebel movements who in the past refused to join the peace process attend the Libya talks.
The Sudanese government and only one major rebel group signed the May 2006 peace deal in Abuja, Nigeria, but the agreement has not held for the war-torn western Sudanese region. The continued violence has prompted the need for deploying U.N. peacekeepers.
Tripoli has in the past hosted several lower-level meetings to try to get the disparate rebel groups together, with no success. Ban, who is on a weeklong Africa tour, will fly to Libya on Saturday after a stop in Chad.
Darfur's bloodletting began in 2003, when ethnic African rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated central government, accusing it of discrimination. Khartoum is accused of retaliating by unleashing janjaweed militias, blamed for the worst atrocities against civilians. The government denies the accusations.
Ban and al-Bashir's joint note also expressed hope that the rebel groups will "cooperate fully ... to ensure that the negotiations are concluded as expeditiously as possible."
For its part, the Sudanese government pledged to "prepare for and participate constructively in renewed negotiations on Darfur" to be held under U.N. and African Union mediation, it said.
In the note, made available to The Associated Press, Sudan also pledged to work with the U.N. and AU to "facilitate the timely deployment" of a new 26,000-member joint AU-U.N. peacekeeping force for Darfur.
The United Nations, in turn, pledged "to do its utmost ... to deploy the hybrid operation in a timely fashion in support of peace consolidation in Darfur."
At a news conference later, Ban and al-Bashir expressed concern at "continuing humanitarian suffering and insecurity in Darfur."
When Ban took the reins of the United Nations in January, he made Darfur a top priority and appointed former Swedish ambassador Jan Eliasson to join the AU efforts to get all rebel factions to the peace table.
Ban's visit in Sudan also focused on pressing the government for speedier deployment of a the new peacekeeping force for Darfur.
After visiting Darfur on Wednesday and seeing the plight of the Darfurians, Ban said he had even great resolve to try to bring peace to their land.
In Al Salaam, home to 46,000 Darfur refugees, Ban promised to step up efforts to end the protracted conflict and urged the world to be more sympathetic to the millions whose lives have been uprooted.
He brushed aside a brief disruption during his meeting Wednesday at a U.N. compound with representatives from three Darfur camps that heightened security fears, and a small protest by well-dressed women shouting against the upcoming deployment of U.N. troops there.
Ban said he understands the frustrations of the millions uprooted from their homes. "They really wanted to see some hope from me, from the United Nations, from the international community," he said.
There was speculation Wednesday that Ban's trip to a Darfur refugee camp would be called off because of security concerns. There was no violence during his brief visit to the Al Salaam camp, but U.N. deputy spokeswoman Marie Okabe said there were reports of some clashes afterward.
Most of the refugees who greeted Ban appeared to be supporters of Abdel Wahid Nur, who leads a major faction of the Sudan Liberation Movement group and is the key holdout in getting all rebel groups and the government back to the negotiating table.
At every opportunity, the U.N. chief stressed the importance of reaching a political settlement and deploying the AU-U.N. force quickly.
AU officials who talked with Ban said they told him the beleaguered AU force now in Darfur has fewer then 6,000 peacekeepers deployed in a region nearly the size of France — down from its authorized strength of 7,000. AU officials said the groundwork for deploying the hybrid force is on schedule, but it is not expected to start arriving until early next year.