ROME, (Reuters) – Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir said on Friday that his government would observe a ceasefire in Darfur after peace talks start next month, on a visit to Rome that has drawn criticism in Italy and abroad. He urged Europe to pressure rebel leaders to attend talks with Khartoum due to start on Oct. 27 in Libya, saying he hoped they would be the last of their kind and finally bring peace. “We have given our government’s willingness for a ceasefire from the start of the peace talks,” he said through a translator at a news conference with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi.
The Italian leader, criticised by European parliamentarians and local politicians for welcoming Bashir, called this a strong and important signal for peace. A ceasefire was agreed in April 2004 but has been violated frequently, with fighting blamed on government troops, rebels and Janjaweed militias. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has urged all parties to cease fire immediately.
International experts estimate that more than four years of violence in Darfur has killed 200,000 people and displaced 2.5 million. Khartoum disputes the figures. Prodi said he expressed frankly the “serious concerns” of Italy and other countries over the Darfur crisis to Bashir, who meets Pope Benedict later on Friday. It is the Sudanese president’s first visit to the Vatican — which has criticised his government for human rights abuses — since coming to power in an Islamist-backed coup in 1989. Italy has agreed to send aid and helicopters, train troops and give financial support to peacekeeping operations in the region, a political aide to Prodi said. His government earlier had to defend itself from criticism by a group of European parliamentarians who expressed surprise and concern that Prodi would welcome a man “primarily responsible for the slaughter in Darfur”.
One Italian opposition leader said Bashir should not be met with a red carpet but with a firm hand. Prodi’s government has said Bashir’s visit would be useful for underlining the common concerns of the international community on the crisis in Darfur.
Bashir said he had offered Prodi details on how the humanitarian conditions in Darfur had improved. He urged European nations to push for an easing in sanctions and to put pressure on rebels living in Europe to attend the peace talks.
Rebel leader Abdel Wahed Mohamed el-Nur, who commands huge popularity among camps for displaced Darfuris, lives in Paris and has said he will not take part in fresh talks until a promised U.N.-African Union peacekeeping force is in place.
Bashir appeared visibly uncomfortable when asked why his government was not disarming the Janjaweed. The government maintains they are outlaws and denies supporting them. “One should ask who started military operations. We say rebels clearly started military operations,” he said. “They forced the government to retaliate to defend itself.”