Chad’s military government signs agreement to launch peace talks

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Doha (AFP) – Chad’s military government on Monday signed an agreement with more than 40 opposition groups to launch nationwide peace talks later this month, although the main rebel group declined to participate.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the African Union have urged the junta and the opposition to seize the last opportunity to stabilize a country seen as key to international efforts to root out Islamic extremists in the Sahel region .

But after five months of Qatari mediation efforts, the main rebel Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT) announced hours before the ceremony at a Doha hotel that it would not sign the agreement.

Under the agreement, Mahamat Idriss Deby’s Transitional Military Council and hundreds of opposition representatives will launch a national peace dialogue in the capital N’Djamena on August 20.

Deby, who was in Doha for the signing, took power after the death of his father, longtime president Idriss Deby Itno, in a battle with rebels in April last year.

The dialogue aims to agree on the timetable and rules for a presidential election that Deby has promised by October.

However, few of the groups who took part in the talks, or the diplomats who followed the painstaking negotiations, expect an election this year.

‘Shocked’

Chad, one of the poorest countries in the world, has suffered repeated uprisings and unrest since its independence in 1960.

Deby has promised a national dialogue and elections within 18 months of taking power, but mediation has been fraught with pitfalls.

FACT and other opposition groups have demanded that he announce he will not stand for re-election. Deby said this can only be negotiated in N’Djamena.

He also said his transitional regime could be extended but faces pressure from the international community to meet the deadline.

In a video message to the ceremony, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the signing “a key moment for the Chadian people”, but said the national dialogue must be “inclusive” to succeed.

The head of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, said both sides keeping their promises would be “crucial criteria” in building trust with the Chadian people.

Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani said the deal was aimed at establishing “peace to replace the turmoil and conflict that the country has been experiencing for long years”.

Forty-three of the 47 groups that remained at the end of the mediation signed the agreement to open national talks in N’Djamena on August 20.

Mahamat Zene Cherif, foreign minister in the caretaker government, acknowledged there had been “difficult talks” in Doha, but said he believed there was now a chance for a “lasting peace” in the country of 16 million people.

Cherif said he was “a bit shocked” that the FACT rebels did not sign the agreement but insisted that all armed groups be allowed to participate in the dialogue.

The groups that signed the accord have committed to a ceasefire while the government has guaranteed the safety of anyone returning from abroad to participate in the talks.

FACT, which went on strike on the first day of the Doha talks in March, had demanded increased security guarantees and the release of more than 300 of its fighters from government prisons.

Cherif said the request was “unacceptable” without FACT giving any assurances in return.

Among the signatories was a veteran rebel leader, Mahamat Nouri, 75, who has signed interim peace agreements with Chadian governments since the 1970s.

He told AFP that the N’Djamena talks could work if there was “good political will” from all parties.