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New Mexico Governor Visits Sudan's Darfur Region

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This past week, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson returned to his former role as diplomatic troubleshooter and shuttled between the government and rebel groups in Sudan. His mission was to help stop the carnage in Darfur that the U.S. government has labeled genocide. The governor, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is reported to be considering a run for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Governor Richardson joins us now from the governor's mansion in Santa Fe. Welcome.

Governor BILL RICHARDSON (New Mexico): Thank you. Nice to be with you.

ELLIOTT: You returned to the U.S. this past week saying you had negotiated a 60-day ceasefire agreement for the Darfur region. But soon after, one of the rebel representatives with whom you met denied it in an interview with the Associated Press. What exactly did the parties agree to and why now are they seeming to back away from it?

Gov. RICHARDSON: Well, right now the situation is this. There are four basic parties. The government of Sudan, which has been the main perpetrator, has agreed to the 60-day ceasefire. I met with three different rebel groups. Two out of the three have reiterated their support for the 60-day ceasefire. One of the rebel groups have backed off in a public statement.

The good news is that there has been a cessation of hostilities. The fighting has not totally stopped, but I believe that next week this will be ironed out.

ELLIOTT: Now, what information do you have that the ceasefire is actually taking effect? We're getting wire reports that more than 200 people have been killed in clashes this week between ethnic African farmers and nomadic Arabs in South Darfur.

Gov. RICHARDSON: Well, I don't have the latest statistics. You're getting the last week and we negotiated this agreement on Wednesday. You know, you're talking about a country that is one of the largest in Africa. You're talking about a lack of communications, even among the army commanders, the military commanders.

You know, this is complicated. There are going to be glitches. But at least I do believe we've taken a major step forward.

ELLIOTT: There seems to be some skepticism on the part of these groups that the government is serious. The Justice and Equality Movement has said it cannot agree to a truce until the government stops escalating violence. I'd like to know what you saw when you were in Darfur. Do you have the sense that the government of Sudan is escalating attacks?

Gov. RICHARDSON: My sense is that the fighting in that region, at least while we were there in Darfur, had ebbed. But look, there's been a lot of other ceasefires that have been violated. So yes, there is skepticism on every corner.

But in addition to the agreement on the ceasefire, we did get the government to agree to take other important steps, like increased security for some of the humanitarian convoys, deal with some of the gender-based violence. They agreed to start admitting journalists more freely. They agreed to expedite visas for humanitarian workers that are delivering food.

ELLIOTT: Now, you did go, you know, in a private capacity with the Save Darfur Coalition. Do you think you succeeded in getting something that American diplomats have not been able to get thus far?

Gov. RICHARDSON: Well, yes. I do believe we did. And I'm not faulting our diplomats. They're first rate. But I'm pleased with the success of the mission. Now there has to be follow-up.

ELLIOTT: Now, since I have you on the line, I must ask a bit about your political plans. Word is we can expect an announcement soon on your candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president.

Gov. RICHARDSON: Well, I've always said that I'm going to make the decision in January, and I'm sticking to it. Last time I checked, there's several more days left in January.

ELLIOTT: Is it hard to think about being in a race where you have such high-profile candidates, people like Hilary Clinton and Barak Obama? A Fox News poll recently had you in last place in a potential pool of Democratic nominees. How do you go about getting yourself known? Trips like this to Darfur?

Gov. RICHARDSON: The election's a year away. I'm very comfortable - I don't know if I'm in last place. Maybe close to that. And I'll do well, but I'm happily ensconced at three percent or wherever I am right now.

ELLIOTT: Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, thanks for speaking with us.

Gov. RICHARDSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.