27 July - The peace process in Darfur has reached a critical point, with the security situation deteriorating just as prospects for a negotiated settlement have slightly improved, a senior United Nations official told the Security Council as he urged all parties to the conflict to step up their efforts to reach a deal.

Ibrahim Gambari, the head of the joint African Union-UN peacekeeping mission in Darfur (known as UNAMID), told an open Council debate that there were encouraging signs pointing towards a possible deal to end a conflict that has raged for seven years.

“Civil society is now more involved in peace talks than ever, the Government of Sudan is demonstrating renewed commitment to negotiations, and the leaders of most armed opposition movements are either participating in or are expressing an interest in participating in the talks,” he said.

The latest round of peace talks wrapped up earlier this month in Doha, Qatar, where the Government has been mediating discussions between Khartoum and the rebel Liberation and Justice Movement (LJM).

Mr. Gambari said today that UNAMID has also begun a process of internal political dialogue within Darfur that aims to give civil society a greater voice in the peace process.

“The purpose of the dialogue will be to focus in detail on issues that affect a wide cross-section of Darfurians, and in particular on those issues that are the root causes of the Darfur conflict, including political and economic marginalization, land, justice and reconciliation.

“In this way, the dialogue will both inform and ensure Darfurian 'buy in' on the final contents of the peace agreements to be signed between the Government and armed movements.”

But Mr. Gambari, who is also the Joint Special Representative of the UN and AU in Darfur, warned that the overall security situation continues to deteriorate in the remote and arid region on Sudan's western flank.

Government forces have clashed with members of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), dislodging the rebel group from several of its traditional strongholds and disrupting its main supply routes.

JEM withdrew from the Doha talks as the fighting resumed and is yet to re-engage, Mr. Gambari noted, adding that the Abdul Wahid faction of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) also attacked Government forces recently, leading to civilian casualties.

Inter-communal fighting between the Misseriya and Nawaiba communities, two semi-nomadic Arab tribes, also spiked in May and June before a peace agreement was reached at the end of last month. More than 250 people were killed in those clashes in those two months alone.

“It is fortunate that this agreement is largely holding and fighting between the groups has largely ceased,” the Joint Special Representative said.

Given these developments, and an increase in attacks against humanitarian personnel, which has hampered the delivery of aid to people in need, “the Darfur peace process is at a critical juncture,” he warned.

In line with the Secretary-General's most recent report on the work of UNAMID, the Security Council is being asked to extend the mandate of the mission, which begun operations in Darfur at the start of 2008.

Meanwhile, a UNAMID helicopter was today used to pick up and transport to safety two German aid workers who have been released after 35 days in captivity in the north of the region. The mission said both workers appear to be in good health.