DOHA Feb 17 – Sudan and Darfur’s most active rebel group signed an accord on Tuesday paving the way for broader peace talks to end a conflict that has claimed the lives of several hundred thousand people in six years.
"This is an important turning point in the Darfur conflict," said Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani, whose country hosted a week of talks between the Khartoum government and the Justice and Equality Movement.
"I am very optimistic, as both sides are determined to end this conflict," he said at a press conference following the signing.
The Doha talks were the first contacts since 2007 between the government and representatives of JEM, which boycotted another largely abortive Darfur peace deal in 2006.
"We will reach a final and just solution with God’s will, to end this war, which with God’s will, will be the last war in Sudan," JEM leader Khalil Ibrahim said at the press conference.
He said that "in a sign of goodwill," the JEM would release a number of prisoners from the government side. Sudanese officials did not announce a similar move.
Ibrahim said the JEM is keen to include all warring factions in the negotiations, and called on Sudan’s neighbours Chad, Egypt, Libya and Eritrea as well as the international community to join the talks.
The sponsors of the Doha talks – Qatar, the United Nations, African Union and Arab League – stressed that they were 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.
Sudan, whose President Omar al-Bashir is facing a possible international arrest warrant for alleged war crimes including genocide in Darfur, puts the death toll at 10,000.
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 member Tahar el-Fakih said on Monday, according to Qatar’s official QNA news agency.
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 Bashir.
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 Bashir 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 Bashir – which would be the first ever issued against a sitting head of state – would plunge the country into chaos.