SIRTE, Libya - Crippled by the absence of Darfur rebel leaders, UN-brokered peace talks ground to a halt yesterday, with officials saying there could be no key steps until the fighters decided how to negotiate with the Sudanese government.
The UN and African Union joint mediation team refused to say the conference was being adjourned, insisting instead that preliminary low-level talks were part of a first phase before full-fledged negotiations could begin.
"Only after that period . . . of approximately three weeks, will we go into substantial negotiations," Jan Eliasson, the UN chief mediator for the peace conference, told the Associated Press.
No major Darfur rebel chiefs were present in the Libyan coastal town of Sirte for the opening of the talks on Saturday, dashing hopes that a quick peace agreement could be reached to end more than four years of fighting with the Sudanese government.
Though mediators cautioned that the Libyan talks were not ending because rebel leaders were absent, Liu Guijin, the special envoy from China - which has considerable leverage on Sudan's government - said the peace conference would probably be suspended within a few days to allow for more constructive peace talks later.
"The adjournment is not a sign of failure. It's a preparation of other steps," Liu told the AP.
Eliasson said more chiefs were expected to arrive in Sirte to prepare for the negotiations. He said preparations could last as long as three weeks. Other rebel leaders want to hold their own preparatory meetings in Darfur.
"I don't think we should dramatize whether these preparations take place here or somewhere else," Eliasson said in Sirte, stating the UN and AU would however "prefer to have them here."
UN mediation spokesman Ahmed Fawzi insisted that despite the talks' slow start, officials were prepared for a three-phrase conference. Only during the conference's third phase will the Sudanese government and rebels hold "negotiations on substantive issues," Fawzi said. The UN and AU, along with the rebels who attended, hope the boycotting rebel leaders will reconsider and join the key talks in the intervening time.
Sudan's government negotiator warned that Khartoum would have no patience for absent rebel leaders. Nafie Ali Nafie insisted the handful of low-level rebels attending "really represent the movements on the ground in Darfur." He agreed that the conference should be adjourned but only to give "those who came here" more time to agree.
"To adjourn negotiations for those who didn't come is a wrong signal," Nafie told reporters.
The rebels' main leaders who have boycotted the talks say the groups now present in Sirte are government stooges with no fighters in Darfur and geared at weakening their position.