KHARTOUM (Reuters) -Darfur rebels have released 36 African Union hostages but are still holding two more in the western Sudanese region, an AU spokesman said on Monday.
The AU had blamed a breakaway faction of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) for the kidnappings. The faction denied the accusations.
A Darfur rebel leader in Nigeria later said the last two hostages had also been released. AU officials in Khartoum could not immediately confirm this but said they were making checks.
JEM Vice-President Bahar Idriss Abudarda said a JEM force had liberated the hostages and the kidnappers had fled into Chad. Abudarda is in the Nigerian capital, taking part in peace talks on the Darfur conflict.
The AU said the faction first kidnapped a multi-national AU ceasefire monitoring team on Sunday and then took the rescue team in the Chadian-Sudanese border town of Tine.
AU spokesman Noureddine Mezni said the military head of the AU mission had witnessed the release of 36 of the hostages.
"Thirty-six were released, two are missing and still with this armed group — the AU team leader and the translator," Mezni said. He added the AU vehicles were still with the group.
AU officials said the monitoring team included a U.S. observer, a JEM representative and other AU forces. The U.S. embassy in Khartoum on Monday confirmed the release of a U.S. hostage but declined further details.
The rebel faction, which split from JEM”s leadership earlier this year, was demanding a seat at peace talks in the Nigerian capital Abuja, AU sources said.
However, the head of the JEM dissident faction, Mohamed Saleh, told Reuters from Darfur he had not taken the AU hostages, even though he has a base in the area near Tine.
"We want the AU to leave and we have warned them not to travel to our areas," he said. "We don”t know and don”t care what is happening to the AU, they are part of the conflict now."
A sixth round of AU-sponsored peace talks began last month between the government and the two main Darfur rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and JEM. It has faltered with an escalation of violence on the ground in recent weeks.
Saleh was the military commander of JEM and signed a much-violated Darfur ceasefire in April 2004. He said he commanded thousands of troops in Darfur and would not honor either the ceasefire or any agreement reached in Abuja.
"We went to Abuja and they refused to talk to us," he said. "So now we will not talk to them."
JEM, SLA and the AU mediator all said talks in Abuja would continue despite the violence on the ground.
Non-Arab rebels took up arms in Darfur in early 2003 accusing the government of neglect and of monopolizing power and wealth. Tens of thousands have been killed and more than 2 million forced from their homes by the violence, which the United States calls genocide.
Khartoum denies genocide, but the International Criminal Court is investigating alleged war crimes in Darfur.
About 6,000 AU troops are deployed to monitor the ceasefire but violence has escalated in recent weeks, prompting the organization last week to voice its harshest public criticism of Darfur rebels and the Sudanese government.
The AU suffered its first casualties on Saturday after more than a year of operations in Darfur in an ambush blamed on SLA.