EL FASHER, Sudan – A group of elder statesmen, including former President Carter and Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu, began a tour of Darfur on Tuesday to promote a political solution to the region's conflict.
The visit by the delegation of prominent international personalities comes at a crucial time — with peace talks due to start in Libya and a U.N-African Union peacekeeping force to begin deploying later this month.
It also come days after a stunning attack in which rebels overran an African peacekeepers base in northern Darfur, killing 10 — the deadliest assault on the force since it arrived in the region three years ago.
"We are not here on a sightseeing tour. We hope we can do something that will make a significant difference ... and bring peace," Tutu, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his fight against apartheid in South Africa, told reporters after the delegation arrived in El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur province.
The Nigerian ambassador to the African Union, Obioma Oparah, tried to dispel fears the weekend deaths of peacekeepers would discourage African governments from contributing troops to the joint force. Sudan has insisted that the bulk of the new force be African.
"No doubt about it, we are deeply saddened by the situation and we condemn the attack on the soldiers," said Oparah, whose country lost the greatest number of troops. But, he said, "We are determined to forge ahead. We are committed."
The delegation visiting Darfur — called "the elders" — is headed by Carter and Tutu and also includes billionaire Richard Branson; Graca Michel, wife of former South African Nelson Mandela; and several prominent former statesmen from Africa.
Their visit is largely symbolic, aiming to influence all sides to make peace in Darfur, where more than 200,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million driven out of their homes in four years of violence.
The group met first with North Darfur governor, Youssouf Kabir, then headed to the compound of an aid camp located next to the sprawling Abu-Shok and Es-Sallam camps where 150,000 refugees who fled Darfur's violence are living.
Darfur is scene of the world's largest humanitarian effort, trying to feed those hit by the turmoil. The conflict pits the Sudanese military against ethnic African rebels who rose up against discrimination by the Arab-dominated government. To help put down the rebellion, Khartoum is accused of unleashing Arab janjaweed militias who have burned hundreds of ethnic African villages, killing and raping civilians.