Sudan's government decided to declare a unilateral ceasefire in Darfur at the opening of the peace talks, Al-Sammani al-Wasila al-Sammani, minister of state for foreign affairs, told AFP.
 
"The AU and the UN mediators opened the peace talks with an impassioned plea to the rebel groups who are staying away from the talks," Mohammed Adow, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Sirte, said.
 
"Their message was 'stop the conflict, and come to and talk peace here'. What they were saying is that the conflict in Darfur has the ability to not only destabilise Sudan but the whole continent."

International mediators had hoped as many groups as possible would attend the talks to negotiate a way forward.
 
Since a peace deal signed by only one of three rebel factions last year, the fighters have split into more than a dozen groups.
 
Clinging to hope
 
Speaking before the talks, Jan Eliasson, the UN special envoy for Darfur, said the peace process was "irreversible" and that it represented "a very important step towards a political settlement".
 
Eliasson said all those who are refusing to
attend should realise what is at stake [AFP]
But Adow said only "a handful of Darfur rebels are ready to talk peace.
 
"They have been struggling to find common ground before negotiations begin. And their dismal number has been a concern for the mediators. But they are vowing to carry on."
 
He said Abdelwahid Elnur, leader of the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM), had rejected the talks and Khalil Ibrahim, the main leader of JEM, was not attending either.

Frustration
 
Adow said the mood around the talks was one of frustration because of the poor response.
 
Likewise, speaking from Al Fasher in northern Darfur, Al Jazeera correspondent Mohamed Vall said: "Frustration is very deep here, in the IDP (internally displaced peoples) camps.
 
In video: Sudan


SPLM leader speaks to Al Jazeera

South Sudan hosts Darfur rebels

"The leaders of the Darfur groups such as Elnur and the JEM say they will not attend the peace talks in deference out of respect for the wishes of the people.
 
"But when we talk to the people here, they say they are not very well informed about the situation and follow the developments on the basis of what their leaders tell them."

The run-up to the talks has also been overshadowed by a rebel attack against an oilfield in a region disputed by Khartoum and Sudan's former southern rebels.

The JEM claimed to have kidnapped two foreign oil workers.

Criticism
 
Vall said some groups claim that many Darfur tribes have been excluded.

Othman Kibir, the governor of north Darfur, said: "Darfur doesn't belong to a handful of groups only. The African Union, United Nations and the international community should talk to all parties, and listen to all parties."

"To the representatives of the United Nations and the African Union, I urge you to be part of the solution, not part of the problem."

Meanwhile, in the southern city of Juba, the Darfur rebel factions failed to unify their positions and most of them decided to boycott the talks.

Increasing tension 

Fighting has continued on the ground despite repeated assertions from all parties that a fragile ceasefire is still holding.

Bakhit, right, says an agreement in Libya
would be a 'sedative' to the Darfur issue [AFP]
Vall also said that the political mood in the Sudanese capital Khartoum is not optimistic.

"The stand off over the implementation of a 2005 peace agreement is continuing between the ruling party and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, its southern partner in the unity government," he said.

Sudan's stability remains uncertain amid what many see as the possibility of another nationwide conflict.

"The real crisis is a Sudan crisis - it's not just about Darfur. If an agreement is reached in Libya, it will be like a sedative to the issue of Darfur," Adam Bakhit, a Darfur rebel commander, said.

"After that, due to other tensions, another war could break out between the North and the South. There needs to be a comprehensive solution for Sudan."