Over the past three years, the conflict in Darfur has displaced more than 2 million people and killed tens of thousands perhaps more than 200,000. But in the past year the fighting, which originally pitted black African tribesmen against Sudan's government in Khartoum and its vicious Janjaweed militia proxies, has metastasized.
Sudanese rebel groups have begun fighting each other. Sudanese government-backed forces have made raids into neighboring Chad, reaching the outskirts of the capital last month and threatening to topple Chad's government. Chad, in turn, has provided a base for anti-Khartoum forces. The splintering has made peace negotiations more complicated and even more urgent.
African Union negotiators had set a deadline of last Sunday night for the combatants to come to an agreement. Since then, however, mediators including American and British negotiators flown in to try to break the deadlock have extended the talks twice. The latest deadline is midnight on Thursday. Sudan's government has agreed to sign the peace plan, but rebel groups are holding out for assurances that the government-sponsored Janjaweed militias, responsible for much of the bloodshed in Darfur, will be disarmed. Rebels also want to share governance of Darfur, a demand the government in Khartoum sees as an unacceptable step towards autonomy and secession.
The U.N. has proposed replacing the 7,000-strong African Union Force in Darfur with a stronger multilateral mission later this year. But a U.N. or even a "coalition of the willing"-style peacekeeping force would create new headaches for Washington and London, and for the U.N.
For one thing, Security Council member China, which has extensive oil interests in Sudan, has regularly blocked moves to impose sanctions on Sudan. China is unlikely to block a U.N.-backed peacekeeping force, but it could limit its mandate. Arab League nations, which tend to side with Khartoum, could also make forming a mission troublesome. And Khartoum says it will refuse U.N. peacekeepers entry to Sudan. Beyond these irritants, there is the question of where troops would come from. Traditional suppliers of peacekeepers such as Jordan and Nigeria are stretched thin elsewhere.
Non-governmental organizations working in the region say only a robust international intervention will stop the killing. Matt Bryden, director of the Horn of Africa Project for aid and lobby group International Crisis Group, points out that "the extent of Khartoum's resistance [to a beefed-up peacekeeping force] hasn't been fully explored yet." If the talks in Abuja fail, that may be the only option left to end the slaughter.