Sudanese authorities and Darfur's most active rebel group signed an agreement Tuesday, which included an intent to exchange prisoners and move towards larger peace talks.
Sudan and Darfur's most active rebel group the Justice and Equality Movement signed an agreement on Tuesday paving the way for broader peace talks aimed at ending the six-year conflict in Darfur.
The declaration of intent was signed a day after the deal was announced between the rebel group and the Khartoum government by Qatar, which has been mediating a week of talks.
"I am very optimistic, as both sides are determined to end this conflict," Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani said at a press conference following the signing.
"We will reach a final and just solution with God's will, to end this war, which with God's willing will be the last war in Sudan," added JEM leader Khalil Ibrahim.
The sponsors of the Doha talks -- Qatar, the United Nations, African Union and Arab League -- have stressed nevertheless that they are preliminary and intended to pave the way for a broader peace conference on Darfur.
The most heavily armed of the Darfur rebel groups, the JEM boycotted a largely abortive peace deal signed by one other faction in 2006. In May last year, it launched an unprecedented assault on the Sudanese capital.
According to the United Nations, 300,000 people have died and more than 2.2 million have fled their homes since rebels in Sudan's western Darfur region rose up against the Khartoum government in February 2003.
The pact was hailed as "a constructive step" by UN chief Ban Ki-moon, who in a statement issued in New York urged both the Sudanese government and JEM "to move expeditiously to a cessation of hostilities and to a detailed and explicit agreement on the scope of comprehensive and inclusive talks."
Sudan, whose President Omar al-Beshir is facing a possible international arrest warrant for alleged war crimes including genocide in Darfur, puts the death toll at only 10,000.
Details of the accord were sketchy, but it includes a prisoner swap, officials said.
Sheikh Hamad, who is also Qatar's foreign minister, said on Monday that he hoped negotiations would be launched in two weeks on a ceasefire and issues relating to a prisoner release.
"The two sides have committed themselves in principle to an exchange of prisoners, to be freed in successive groups between now and the launch of talks on a framework agreement on peace in Darfur," JEM delegation member Tahar el-Fakih said on Monday, according to Qatar's official QNA news agency.
Amin Hassan Omar, a member of the Khartoum delegation, was quoted by QNA as confirming that "in principle... there is a commitment to release prisoners and detainees for events linked to the Darfur conflict."
Tuesday's accord followed a long meeting on Monday between the heads of the two delegations, JEM leader Khalil Ibrahim and Nafie Ali Nafie, an aide to Beshir.
Ibrahim had said at the start of the Doha talks that broader peace negotiations would only be possible if the government was prepared to accept the winding up of allied Arab militias in Darfur and allow high-level rebel representation in the central government.
He said confidence-building measures should include the expansion of aid deliveries to rebel-held areas as well as the release of JEM prisoners.
Last week, the New York Times reported that judges from the International Criminal Court in The Hague had decided to issue an arrest warrant for Beshir for alleged genocide and war crimes in Darfur.
However, an ICC spokeswoman told AFP: "At this moment, there is no arrest warrant."
Many Sudanese believe that formal charges against Beshir -- which would be the first ever issued against a sitting head of state -- would plunge the country into chaos.
Date created : 2009-02-17