KHARTOUM, (Reuters) – Sudan will free 24 Darfur prisoners as part of a goodwill agreement with rebels, Sudan’s justice minister said on Saturday.
Abdel Basit Sabderat said the release was linked to a deal signed in Qatar this week between Khartoum and the rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), which is designed to pave the way to peace talks.
JEM released 21 government prisoners-of-war this week to hold up its end of the deal, a JEM commander said.
Many analysts have said Khartoum agreed to the Qatar deal as part of a diplomatic push to deflect a looming International Criminal Court war crimes case against Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir.
“The president has ordered the release of 24 prisoners related to Darfur cases,” Sabderat told reporters. He did not say which prisoners would be released or whether they would be JEM members.
The minister made the announcement at the end of a one-day visit to Khartoum by the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.
At least 50 alleged JEM members are in prison in Khartoum, sentenced to death after being found guilty of taking part in the movement’s unprecedented attack on the capital in May. “If the release takes place, then there is hope that we can all go back to Doha again for the next stage. If there is no release, there will be no Doha,” JEM commander Suleiman Sandal said.
During the Doha talks, both sides agreed to make peace negotiations a priority and adopt a series of confidence-building measures including a prisoner swap. They said they would meet again to negotiate a more formal “framework agreement” before considering a ceasefire and full peace talks.
Sudan’s army said 17 JEM fighters and 11 Sudanese soldiers were killed in clashes close to the north Darfur settlement of Donki on Thursday. Sandal confirmed the Donki fighting but said the rebels had routed the army.
Agbash said JEM forces had received supplies and support from the government of neighbouring Chad, repeating charges made by Sudanese government officials last month.
Relations between the oil-producing neighbours are on a knife-edge after Chad said last month that Sudan was backing a new insurgent coalition against the N’Djamena government.
Mostly non-Arab rebels took up arms against Sudan’s government in 2003, accusing Khartoum of neglecting the region’s development. Khartoum mobilised mostly Arab militias to crush the rebellion.
International experts say the fighting has killed 200,000 and uprooted 2.7 million people. Sudan’s government says 10,000 have been killed and accuses the Western media of exaggerating the conflict.