DOHA, (AFP) – Sudan and Darfur’s most active rebel group the Justice and Equality Movement will sign an agreement on Tuesday paving the way for broader talks aimed at ending the six-year conflict in Darfur.
Qatar, which has been hosting peace talks between the rebel group and the Khartoum government for a week, announced the deal on Monday.
“There has been great progress… and we now have an agreement,” Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani told reporters.
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.
“We hope to launch negotiations in two weeks on, among other things, a ceasefire and issues related to the exchange of prisoners,” said Sheikh Hamad, who is also Qatar’s foreign minister.
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.
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 Monday’s accord were sketchy, but it includes a prisoner swap, officials said.
“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, according to Qatar’s 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.”
Monday’s developments followed a long meeting between the heads of the two delegations, JEM leader Khalil Ibrahim and Nafie Ali Nafie, an aide to Beshir.
The meeting was attended by Ahmed Ben Abdallah al-Mahmud, Qatari minister of state for foreign affairs, and Djibril Bassole, mediator for the United Nations and African Union taskforce in Darfur.
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.