Khartoum: The killing of Darfur`s most powerful rebel leader could split his group and complicate efforts to end the fighting in the Sudanese region, the head of an international peacekeeping mission said on Wednesday.
The Darfur conflict has been rumbling on since 2003 when mainly non-Arab rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum, accusing it of political and economic neglect.
In December, the Sudanese Army killed Khalil Ibrahim, head of the most militarily powerful rebel group, the Justice Equality Movement (JEM).
Ibrahim Gambari, head of the UN/African Union (UNAMID) peacekeepers, said he feared JEM would fracture after Khalil`s death, which would hurt attempts to bring it to the negotiating table.
Apart from the ongoing fighting, divisions among the rebels are one of the biggest obstacles to peace because the international community has to deal with dozens of groups. JEM was one of the last insurgent groups of any size.
"My fear is that they might (split). They may have nobody to unify," Gambari said in an interview.
He said JEM could splinter into several factions of field commanders if Khalil`s brother Jibril did not emerge as the new leader. In any case, the group would be unlikely to discuss resuming negotiations until they sorted out the succession.
Asked if JEM might rejoin peace talks soon, Gambari said: "I doubt they will. They just lost their leader."
In July, Sudan signed a Qatar-sponsored peace agreement with the Liberation and Justice Movement (LJM), an umbrella organisation of small rebel groups. JEM and the other larger insurgent groups refused to join.
Many analysts fear the Doha agreement will fail like a 2006 peace deal in Abuja due to fighting and rebel divisions.
But Gambari said he was confident the Qatar deal would be more successful because it focussed on development which would help to wean support away from rebel groups.
"The peace agreement is not complete ... but we want to create facts on the ground," he said.
In contrast to the Abuja agreement, the Doha deal called for providing substantial economic aid as well as setting up special courts and a local authority, he said.
Gambari said the security situation remained a challenge but there were some positive signs, with more displaced people returning home and violence hitting an all-time low last year.
Around 300,000 people have died and some two million displaced in the vast western region, the United Nations has estimated. Khartoum puts the death toll at 10,000.
"Violence is 70 percent down (in 2011 compared to 2010)," he said. "People are returning, not in huge numbers yet, but not in insignificant numbers. People move from north to southwest."