KHARTOUM, Feb 7 (Reuters) - Darfur rebels on Saturday said they were preparing for talks with Sudan's government in Qatar on Monday, the first time both sides will have met officially since 2007, possibly paving the way for full peace negotiations.
If the discussions go ahead, they will be seen as a step forward after almost six years of fighting in Darfur that, international experts say, has killed 200,000 and driven 2.7 million from their homes.
But talks between insurgent Justice and Equality Movement group (JEM) and government officials have fallen apart before, and the meeting will not involve other influential rebels who are refusing to talk to Khartoum.
The meeting, which JEM said was scheduled for Monday, would come days after JEM fighters clashed with government troops in south Darfur, and eight months after the organisation mounted an unprecedented attack on Khartoum.
"It will be a preliminary consultation. The first aim is to break the ice, to get the two parties sitting together," London-based JEM official Al-Tahir al-Feki told Reuters.
He added the two sides would also discuss possible confidence-building measures, including the release of prisoners and a cessation of hostilities for a set period of time.
"We hope these measures could be part of a framework agreement. That would be a very good first step which could start the next step -- actual negotiations in the presence of international observers," said al-Feki.
A U.N. official, who asked not to be named, confirmed a meeting had been organised in Doha on Monday that would be attended by the joint U.N./African Union mediator in Darfur Djibril Bassole.
"(The mediator) is going to Qatar. The government and JEM are also supposed to come," the official told Reuters.
No one was immediately available for comment from Sudan's government on Saturday, a public holiday in Khartoum.
Sudan's government launched its own Darfur peace initiative in November, offering, among other measures, a ceasefire, compensation for Darfuris and peace talks in Qatar with all rebel movements.
Many observers said the government's initiative was a bid to deflect pressure from the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, who has asked judges to issue an arrest warrant for Sudan's president Omar Hassan al-Bashir, accusing him of orchestrating genocide in Darfur. The global court's judges are expected to rule on his request within weeks.
JEM commanders have threatened to mark the release of an ICC arrest warrant with a military offensive. But Al-Feki said JEM's ultimate aim was a negotiated peace. "We don't want war. No one wants war," he said.
Al-Feki said JEM had expressed an interest in holding consultations with Khartoum weeks before the start of its recent clashes with government forces over the south Darfur town of Muhajiriya.
JEM walked out of negotiations with Sudan's government over the troubled 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement and boycotted efforts to restart negotiations in Libya in 2007.
Abdel Wahed Mohamed Ahmed al-Nur, founder of Darfur's rebel Sudan Liberation Army, this week reiterated his refusal to take part in negotiations with Khartoum ahead of an end to violence on the ground in Darfur.
Mostly non-Arab rebels from Darfur took up arms against the government in 2003, accusing Khartoum of neglecting the region. Khartoum says the western media has exaggerated the conflict and puts the death count at 10,000. (Editing by Louise Ireland) (For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit:
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