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Al-Bashir Talks of Peace in Darfur While Escalating the Violence

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Three events on Monday, Aug. 25, help illustrate the cruel complexities of the death, destruction and displacement in the Darfur region of Sudan.

First and most worrisome, Sudanese troops attacked the huge Kalma Camp, where 90,000 people displaced from their homes by violence live in crowded squalor. The Sudan Tribune quoted a source saying that 86 people died and 221 were wounded during the attacks against people seeking refuge from violence (in other reports the number of deaths cited is lower).

Second, as the attacks were taking place just outside of Nyala, the capital of South Darfur, a new international peace negotiator arrived in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. "Our concern now is to invite everyone to stop shooting," Djibril Bassole, the Darfur peace envoy representing the United Nations and the African Union, said at the airport.

Third, the Sudan Tribune reported a series of revealing--and disturbing--comments about Darfur by the president of Sudan, Omer Hassan Al-Bashir. In an interview with Dubai-based Al-Arabiya TV, Al-Bashir spoke of "US and Western plots" to break up Sudan and exploit vast mineral resources in Darfur. He also said that "17 out of 18 localities in Darfur are safe" and that the region is "90 per cent peaceful." In fact, more than 2.5 million people have been displaced by violence in Darfur, much of it initiated or supported by government troops, and an estimated 400,000 have died of war related causes. Government troops have even attacked peacekeepers deployed by the UN and the AU. In the face of these facts, President Al-Bashir's comments are deceitful, delusional or simply uninformed.

This combination of events -- Sudanese troops attack a refugee camp, the latest in a long line of peace negotiators arrives with hopes of ending the five year civil war, and President Al-Bashir denies that there is much of a problem to solve -- help show why this problem is so intractable.

The war in Darfur started in February 2003, when the Sudan Liberation Army attacked government troops. At the time the rebels said they where fighting against political and economic marginalization -- for a greater share of the wealth of Sudan. The government responded aggressively, and for the last five years government supported militia forces, known as the Janjaweed, which are primarily Arab, have attacked largely African villages, driving farmers from their land. The causes and outcomes of the war are complex, but at one level it appears to be an effort by government backed Arabs to displace Africans and take their wealth.

This is why President Bush has called the violence in Sudan genocide, and why the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court recently said that President Al-Bashir is guilty of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In his TV interview, President Al-Bashir highlighted Darfur's wealth, wealth that is largely undeveloped and unavailable to the people of Darfur. He said: "Darfur is a rich region swimming over a lake of oil. Darfur has large quantity of minerals like copper, iron and uranium. There is also aluminum nitrate and a very large aquifer. There is animal wealth and agricultural land."

One of the preconditions for a durable peace agreement in Darfur is an arrangement that shares economic wealth and political power more equally among the people of Darfur. If President Al-Bashir really believes that Darfur is "90 per cent peaceful," then maybe it's time to start consolidating the peace by distributing the region's wealth more evenly--unless, of course, the government wants to keep all the wealth for itself and its allies.

Ken Bacon, President, Refugees International