African Union Leaders to Meet in Sudan

African leaders will converge on Khartoum later this month for the sixth summit of the African Union. Some believe the meeting could be a positive step towards ending to the violence in Sudan's Darfur region. Others are less sure.

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SHEILAH KAST, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Sheilah Kast.

Coming up, the passing of a real-life Indiana Jones.

But first, this month Sudan will host the Sixth Conference of the African Union and hopes to take over leadership of that body. But the summit is taking place against a backdrop of continuing violence in the Darfur region of that country. Hundreds of thousands of people are believed to have died in the conflict since 2003 when Sudan launched a massive campaign ostensibly aimed at rebels in Darfur. Human rights groups have called for sanctions against the government, which has armed and equipped a ruthless militia known as the Janjaweed. NPR's Charlayne Hunter-Gault reports from Khartoum on attitudes about the upcoming summit.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT reporting:

Sudanese workers are busy with Khartoum's face lift, especially on Nile Road, running along the Blue Nile River past the grand palace grounds and government ministries, the road's median lined with newly planted pink bougainvillea and palm trees, running up to a brand-new development built especially for the African heads of state due here for the two-day meeting beginning January 23rd. The development is a veritable oasis in an otherwise dusty town. Dozens of spacious, two-story houses newly built for visiting dignitaries sit on lush, green grass surrounded by palm trees.

For some here, like the United Nations' special representative Jan Pronk, the AU meeting holds out a lot of promise.

Mr. JAN PRONK (United Nations Special Representative): That the AU is having its summit here is very, very positive. Don't forget, 50 years ago Sudan was the first country becoming independent after decolonization. So it took the lead, and that AU summit is a kind of a ceremony showing the world that decolonization was very important for the future of Africa.

HUNTER-GAULT: But Pronk, who has criticized both the Sudanese government and the rebels in Darfur for failing to reach a peace agreement, believes the Khartoum meeting is an opportunity for the African Union to send a strong message to the Sudanese as well as other Africans.

Mr. PRONK: The African Union could use that event by putting a lot of pressure on the government of Sudan to set the next step which is necessary. You should not only be independent but also completely peaceful.

HUNTER-GAULT: Pronk, who has been involved in peace talks in Abuja, Nigeria, says the warring parties--two rebel factions and the government of Sudan--so far do not seem to be in a hurry to make peace in a region where some three million people are affected by the conflict, with some two million displaced and living in camps.

Mr. PRONK: Their situation would only improve if there would be more security that can be organized by the international community and if the peace talks will lead to a sustainable agreement. And it's up to the government and to the two parties to do so, and they seem to lack a sense of urgency.

HUNTER-GAULT: Meanwhile, others are as gloomy about the AU meeting in Khartoum. Alfred Taban is publisher of the Khartoum Monitor, an independent daily newspaper in the city reflecting many of the views of southern Sudanese like himself.

Mr. ALFRED TABAN (Publisher, Khartoum Monitor): They build a huge building like that and bring boats that day--so a big boat or cruise liner or whatever it is, being brought for the heads of state. People are dying in the south in Darfur from hunger. What possible help is this meeting going to bring us? A lot of that money I think could have been used in the south where that loss of (unintelligible) virtually everything. This would have saved lives rather than bring, you know, heads of states here on useless talk which is not like to benefit anybody.

HUNTER-GAULT: Taban argues that the AU is compromising its neutrality.

Mr. TABAN: The Sudan government has a problem in Darfur and the African Union is supposed to be tackling that problem. And the African Union is supposed to be neutral, which in--the government and the Darfur rebels. Now if they hold these talks in Khartoum, how will the rebels think about it? They'll say, `Well, the African Union has taken sides with the government in Khartoum.'

HUNTER-GAULT: Despite such concerns and criticisms, the meeting will go forward. But the big question is, who will be the AU's next leader? Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, is among the contenders. But can the African Union afford to elect him as long as Darfur remains a killing field? Charlayne Hunter-Gault, NPR News.

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