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Annan opens African meeting on Darfur

Associated Press

November 16, 2006

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia - U.N. Secretary-General

Kofi Annan worked with key African, Arab, European leaders in Ethiopia on Thursday to break the deadlock over worsening violence in Sudan's Darfur region.

Annan said summit members set up three committees to discuss the key issues: strengthening a beleaguered African peacekeeping force, enforcing a faltering cease-fire, and reinvigorating peace talks.

"We are having very good and constructive discussions," he said at the African Union headquarters in Ethiopia.

Annan wants U.N. peacekeepers to replace an African Union force in Darfur. Sudan has so far blocked a U.N. contingent, and Annan wants to stop the killings in Darfur before he leaves office Jan. 1. One proposal is for a joint AU-U.N. peacekeeping force.

Sudanese Foreign Minister Lam Akol did not rule out the proposal. "We are still discussing these points," he said.

The meeting drew senior officials from the African Union, the Arab League, the

European Union, Sudan, the United States, China, Russia, Egypt, France and a half-dozen African countries.

In recent days, pro-government militia known as janjaweed have stepped up attacks on villages in Darfur, killing dozens of people, international observers said Wednesday. In one raid, janjaweed militiamen - backed by government troops - forced children into a thatched hut, then set it ablaze, killing parents who tried to rescue the children, rebels said.

Speaking Wednesday in neighboring Kenya, Annan said the United Nations still wants to send its own troops. It has proposed replacing the 7,000-member African Union mission in Darfur with some 20,000 U.N. peacekeepers.

"We have not given up the idea of strengthening the force in Darfur," Annan said. "We need to continue our efforts to calm Darfur ... the border area between Chad and Sudan is very fragile and volatile."

After years of low-level clashes over water and land in the vast, arid Darfur region, rebels from ethnic African tribes took up arms against Sudan's Arab-dominated central government in 2003. Khartoum is accused of unleashing the janjaweed. The militiamen are accused of many of the atrocities in a conflict that has killed some 200,000 people and chased 2.5 million from their homes.

The conflict has destabilized a wide region that includes parts of neighboring Chad and the Central African Republic. The chaos has been exploited by rebels from Sudan, Chad and the Central African Republic, and ethnic violence mirroring attacks in Darfur has been seen in Chad in recent weeks.

The Sudanese army has denied any connection to janjaweed attacks, saying the claims were politically motivated.

Some in Darfur say the government has let loose janjaweed forces in Darfur recently to put down an umbrella coalition of rebels, the National Redemption Front, which has rejected a peace deal and clashed with government forces.

The African Union said at least 30 people were killed and 40 wounded in the janjaweed raid Saturday in the north Darfur town of Sirba and that attacks were also reported nearby.

Human Rights Watch has called for a major increase in the Darfur peacekeeping force to stop the growing number of attacks on civilians.

The New York-based advocacy group said it has documented renewed aerial bombing of civilians both in Darfur and inside neighboring Chad since late October.

"We're seeing a regional war against civilians, with armed groups on both sides of the border actively supported or tolerated by the Sudanese and Chadian governments," Peter Takirambudde, Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. "The high-level meetings in Ethiopia must produce a clear plan for immediate deployment of international troops to protect civilians in Darfur and eastern Chad."

The aid agency Medecins Sans Frontiers reported that thousands of people have fled their homes and refugee camps in Darfur. The agency said it was also increasingly difficult to provide aid to the victims because of the violence.

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