Darfur aid conference eyes $2 bln target

CAIRO: International donors were urged Sunday to dig deep into their pockets at a conference in Cairo which aims to raise two billion dollars for the reconstruction of war-ravaged Darfur

The one-day conference, which was organised by the 57-strong Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and co-chaired by Egypt and Turkey, was also attended by representatives from the Britain, China, France and the United States among others.

"The Darfur issue is mainly an issue of development," Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit said as he urged donors to make significant pledges to Darfur, which has been devastated by a seven-year-war.

"We are convinced that the key is to improve development and raise the standard of living for the Darfur citizen," he told the opening session.

Recent agreements signed between the government of Sudan and rebel groups were "important and need to be implemented," he said.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu also highlighted the importance of the agreements, but said a solution to the Darfur conflict was not just political.

Peace in Darfur "will not only be achieved through political agreements but also through humanitarian and development assistance," Davutoglu said.

Sudan is represented by former Darfur rebel and now presidential adviser Minni Minawi, as well as ministers and senior officials.

Western countries refrained from making pledges citing security concerns.

"In the absence of proper conditions on the ground, our focus remains on humanitarian assistance," the representative from Norway said, echoing the view of several Western diplomats in attendance.

"Our presence here constitutes a political message," one Western diplomat told AFP, adding that his country would not contribute pledges because of "the uncertainty of how the money will be used or channelled."

"We cannot make pledges at this conference. We have donated money in the past through the World Bank, but there are still some difficulties in the country," another said.

Even host Egypt did not announce a pledge, though some participants said that its role in Sudan goes "deeper than this conference."

"Egypt does a lot for Sudan, through many channels. It is not a big surprise that it does not make a contribution at this conference. The political significance of the conference is due to Egypt, let's not forget that," an African participant told AFP.

The two billion dollars which the conference aims to raise is to finance in cooperation with Khartoum a long list of development projects in agriculture, water supply, health and education.

Aid to Darfur has so far concentrated on humanitarian and relief efforts. But organisers are trying to shift gear by working on a more long-term vision for Darfur through development and reconstruction projects.

The conference also hopes to "provide an incentive to all Darfur movements to join the peace process" which has been taking place in Doha, the host said.

The Sudanese government recently signed two agreements with the rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Liberation and Justice Movement (LJM), hailed by the international community as a key step toward bringing peace to Darfur.

The Cairo conference comes three weeks before Sudan holds its first multi-party elections since 1986, in which veteran leader Omar al-Beshir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in Darfur, is seeking re-election as president.

Since ethnic minority rebels first rose up against the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum in 2003, the Darfur conflict has claimed about 300,000 lives and left 2.7 million people homeless, according to UN figures.

Khartoum puts the death toll at 10,000.