WASHINGTON (IPS) — Leaders of Darfur’s fractious rebel groups have settled on a common negotiating position following a four-day round of talks in Tanzania, United Nations and African Union mediators announced Aug. 6.

The rebels hope this unified position will allow peace talks with the government of Sudan to begin within two to three months, UN special envoy to Darfur Jan Elliason said.

But the absence of key rebel leaders from the talks may limit the significance of this latest agreement, some analysts warned.

“It’s a step forward, but the real work is yet to be done,” Alex de Waal, a Darfur expert at the Social Science Research Council, told IPS.

The talks, which were held in the Tanzanian city of Arusha from Aug. 3-6, came less than a week after the UN Security Council passed a resolution establishing the world’s largest peacekeeping mission in Darfur.

Elliason and Salim Ahmed Salim, the African Union envoy, stated that the negotiations had produced a common platform on “power sharing, wealth sharing, security arrangements, land/hawakeer [the lands of a particular clan or ethnic group] and humanitarian issues,” although de Waal cautioned that the substance of the position still needs to be hammered out.

The Arusha negotiations brought together representatives of the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), both of which have splintered into competing factions in the four years since the Darfur conflict began.

But two leading figures, Suleiman Jamous and Abdel Wahid Mohammed al-Nur, were not present in Arusha, and experts say that their absence does not bode well for the success of the talks.

Jamous, the humanitarian coordinator of the SLA and a much-admired figure among the rebels, has been held in de facto custody at a UN hospital in the Sudan for over a year. The Sudanese government has threatened to arrest him if he leaves the hospital.

One of the biggest rebel groups, SLA-Unity, had threatened to boycott the talks if Jamous was not allowed to attend, although Reuters reported that they eventually relented.

Al-Nur, the founding chairman of the SLA, was also absent from the negotiations. His absence, however, was a personal choice. On Aug. 3, al-Nur criticized the talks in an interview with the Sudan Tribune, saying, “The mediators speak about rebel unity, but in fact they encourage rebels’ divisions because they invite anyone with a gun, a vehicle, and a satellite telephone to attend.”

Although al-Nur now lives in Paris and no longer commands many troops in Darfur, he remains a widely respected figure among the 2.5 million people displaced by the conflict.

“Nur is still regarded by most in the [displaced-persons] camps as the voice of the displaced,” Eric Reeves, an academic who has written widely about the Sudan, told IPS. “It would be very difficult for the meetings to be a success if he boycotts them.”

Reeves also warned, “It would be the recipe for the kind of failure we saw in the Abuja settlement if you take only a minority, or even a large plurality, of the rebel groups and seek to make an agreement.”

The May 2006 peace deal brokered between rebels and the Sudanese government in Abuja, Nigeria, was signed by only one major rebel group — the faction of the SLA led by Minni Minawi — and quickly became a dead letter.

This weekend’s negotiations came only days after the Security Council unanimously passed a resolution to deploy a “hybrid” United Nations/African Union mission to Darfur comprising 26,000 peacekeepers. The mission would replace a 7,000-person African Union force that has widely been viewed as ineffective.

The conflict in Darfur began in February 2003, when members of the region’s tribes took up arms against what they saw as decades of neglect and discrimination by the central government in Khartoum.

Since then, the conflict has claimed more than 200,000 lives and displaced 2 million people, according to the United Nations and the African Union.

Inter Press Service, 2007. All rights reserved.