By Andrew Heavens
KHARTOUM, Feb 16 The Sudanese government and a Darfur rebel faction have agreed on confidence-building measures at talks in Qatar, Qatari media said on Monday -- a step that may eventually lead to negotiations on a peace deal.
Sudan started talks with the Justice and Equality Movement, one of Darfur's main insurgent groups, last week, almost six years into a conflict that international experts say has killed 200,000 people and uprooted 2.7 million.
However, other influential rebel factions are refusing to talk to Khartoum and say the peace drive will fail without them.
Qatar's official QNA news agency quoted Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani as saying Sudanese government and JEM officials were expected to sign an initial agreement on confidence-building measures on Tuesday, which could open the way for talks on a framework peace agreement.
"We hope to start framework talks in about two weeks about a ceasefire and details of the issue of prisoners," Sheikh Hamad said in remarks aired on Al Jazeera televison.
Speaking by phone from the Qatari capital Doha, JEM spokesman Ahmed Hussein Adam said the two sides had reached a basic agreement on the key issue of the release of prisoners.
"An agreement in principle has been reached on those held or convicted in connection with the Darfur conflict ... but details remain to be worked out," he told Reuters.
Ahmad bin Abdullah al-Mahmoud, a Qatari minister of state and one of the mediators, said the agreement included measures to aid and protect refugees in Darfur and a commitment by the two sides to continue negotiations in Doha.
The JEM wants the government to agree to a prisoner swap and an end to the bombardment of what it says are civilian areas. It has also demanded that Khartoum pledge not to impede humanitarian aid and refrain from harassing displaced people.
Sudanese government negotiators were not immediately available for comment.
But a senior Sudanese official earlier warned that, in the long term, talks to end the rebellion could be undermined by moves to indict Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for war crimes in Darfur.
International Criminal Court judges are expected to rule within weeks on whether to issue a warrant for Bashir's arrest over allegations that he masterminded genocide in Darfur, where JEM and other rebels took up arms in 2003, demanding more representation for the region and improved infrastructure.
Khartoum mobilised mostly Arab militias to crush the revolt but denies U.S. accusations that this amounted to genocide.
Mohammed el-Mahadi Mandour el-Mahadi, head of the political affairs secretariat for Bashir's dominant National Congress Party, told Reuters the government would struggle in Qatar to find a resolution if an arrest warrant was issued.
He said JEM had felt emboldened to make increasingly unrealistic demands during the talks, and its leader had also promised to hunt down Bashir if an arrest warrant was issued.
"They have raised their ceilings of their demands. They are asking to be the governors of Darfur, to be the governors of Kordofan (a neighbouring region), to share power with the National Congress," he told Reuters in an interview.
"(An arrest warrant) will ruin the negotiations. They will call for other demands. It would be very difficult to continue with the negotiations."