Sirte, Libya — Sudan's government committed to a cease-fire in Darfur at the start of peace talks Saturday, but mediators and journalists outnumbered the few rebels who did not boycott the U.N.-sponsored negotiations, reducing hopes for an end to the fighting.
The large government delegation said its cessation of hostilities was a sign of goodwill for negotiations aimed at ending over four years of fighting in the western Sudanese region. But the pledge was not matched by the rebels, whose main leaders all refused to attend the talks.
"The government of Sudan is proclaiming as of now a unilateral cease-fire in Darfur," said Sudanese chief envoy Nafie Ali Nafie. "We shall not be the first ones to fire arms."
The U.S. special envoy for Sudan, Andrew Natsios, praised the government for its pledge, but cautioned that dozens of previous cease-fire declarations in Darfur have been broken by both government troops and rebel factions.
Some 20 rebels were present in the vast conference hall in the Libyan coastal town of Sirte. Ahmed Diraige, the head of an obscure faction known as the Sudan Federal Democratic Alliance, spoke on behalf of the rebels and stated the groups present were also willing to consider a cease-fire.
But with the absence of major rebels, hopes faded for a quick peace agreement. Mediators downplayed the conference's goals, saying the focus would now be to "create conditions" for effective peace talks. Mediation spokesman Ahmed Fawzi warned it would be "a long process."
The host of the talks, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, questioned what could be achieved in Sirte, saying the absence of the main Darfur rebel chiefs, Abdul Wahid Elnur and Khalil Ibrahim, proved international mediation efforts were failing.
"I had expected my sons Abdul Wahid and Dr. Khalil to be here," Gadhafi said. "These are major movements, and without them we cannot achieve peace."
"As long as they object to this conference, then there is no justification for the international community to intervene," he added.
Chief U.N. negotiator Jan Eliasson and his African Union counterpart, Salim Ahmed Salim, told reporters several rebel leaders were expected to "trickle in" during the next few days. While slow to start, the talks aimed to build a dialogue that could lead to a more solid peace deal, they said.