Through the windows of a Paris cafe on the Right Bank, the lunchtime crowd chatting over red wine and espressos can see water gushing from stone sphinxes under a carved column topped with a golden angel. It is hard to imagine a starker contrast between this gracious eatery and the ravaged villages of Darfur, yet among the diners here is a man who could hold the key to peace in the devastating conflict in western Sudan. "The Sudan regime is an outlaw regime," Abdul Wahid el Nur, leader of the rebel Sudan Liberation Movement, shouts, slamming his fist on the cafe table. "They do not respect peace accords."
Since fleeing to Paris last February, Nur has repeated the same message to President Bush's special envoy for Sudan, Andrew Natsios; French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner; and the former U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson. A steady stream of leading diplomats has met with Nur to plead with him to attend international peace talks with Sudan's government. "Everybody has been to see him, anybody who thinks they can have any influence whatsoever," says a European aid worker, who asked not to be named. "People are really, really, really trying to persuade him." That's because the mass killing that has left some 200,000 civilians dead and more than 2 million displaced is occurring the context of a civil war that pits the government and its allied janjaweed militia against an assortment of anti-government rebel groups including the one headed by Nur. Ending the violence in Darfur requires a peace agreement between the combatants.
Pressure on Nur has escalated in recent weeks, with the first major international peace talks in 18 months on Darfur scheduled to open in Libya on October 27. The purpose of that meeting is to get all the parties to the conflict to agree to a cease-fire that would allow 26,000 U.N.-mandated African Union troops in to protect civilians and keep the peace.
Although previous attempts to forge a peace deal have failed to stop the klling, Western officials are hoping that the ruinous violence and the inability of either side to prevail by force of arms will have left the combatants exhausted enough to agree to a compromise. Khartoum has also come under pressure from China, Sudan's major international trade partner, to bring peace to Darfur Beijing is mindful that activists have begun linking the killing in Darfur with the Beijing Olympics in the hope that bad publicity will prompt the Chinese to turn the screws on Sudan.
But while the government has agreed to attend the talks in Tripoli, from his refuge in Paris Abdulwahid El-Nur is refusing to go. "I don't care about the peace talks at all," he says angrily. "We are working for real peace."
At 39, Nur hardly looks like a rebel leader. A rotund man, he races between meetings in a checked suit jacket and charcoal wool trousers, clutching a mobile phone. But if his appearance is misleading, there's no doubting that Nur has the loyalty of many of the military commanders among the splintered rebel organizations in Darfur, according to aid workers who have recently traveled around the region. They say Nur remains especially popular among the more than 2 million displaced people languishing in camps. Driven from their villages across a vast, blighted landscape, those people are key to whether a peace deal will stick, or whether rebel groups will keep fighting even if Sudan's government agrees to desist. One aid worker, who did not want to be named, said people in Darfur's camps last month listened to taped messages by Nur, sent clandestinely from Paris, and that local leaders spoke regularly to him by satellite phone. "The world is a little village," Nur says, refusing to detail how he runs his rebel organization from Paris. "We have different ways of communicating with our people on the ground."
Lately, those messages have included explanations of why he will stay in Paris when the government and other rebel leaders sit down to talk in Tripoli. "To go ahead without him is very, very difficult," says Alex de Waal, program director of the Social Science Research Council in New York City and co-author of Darfur: A Short History of a Long War. "It will certainly undermine the legitimacy of whatever is agreed there."
Nur, who has a renewable three-month tourist visa allowing him to stay in the European Union, says he is under "very, very high pressure" from European governments to make peace. He says peace talks are not possible while government attacks continue in Darfur and before international forces are on the ground to enforce a cease-fire. He also insists that displaced families receive compensation and help in returning home to their villages; promises by Western governments of support for rebuilding the shattered region have been more vague.
A French foreign ministry spokesman this week told TIME that the French government had tried hard to get Nur to the peace talks. "We have done everything we can to persuade him to go," he said. "For the moment we can do nothing more." Clearly exasperated, Foreign Minister Kouchner told reporters at the United Nations last month that he had told Nur "10,000 times" that he risked being politically marginalized in Sudan if he did not attend peace talks. But, despite his irritation, Kouchner said in a statement this week that Nur would not be asked to leave France. So, when rebels and governments meet in Libya later this month to try and forge a new deal for Darfur, Nur will still likely be found taking meetings amid Paris's old stone fountains and elegant cafes.