KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudan agreed a ceasefire with Darfur’s most powerful rebel group on Saturday as part of an agreement to “heal” the war in the western region, Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir said.
The rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) said the framework agreement reached in the Chadian capital N’Djamena was not a final peace deal but set out the terms for negotiations that could still fail if it saw signs of bad faith from Khartoum.
Bashir said he would cancel death sentences handed out to JEM prisoners and free 30 percent of them immediately. More than 100 men were sentenced to death by hanging after being found guilty of taking part in a JEM attack on Khartoum in 2008.
Bashir told state television: “Today we signed an agreement between the government and JEM in N’Djamena, and in N’Djamena we heal the war in Darfur.”
Khartoum has agreed to a series of ceasefires during the seven-year conflict, but some have fallen apart days after their signing, and distrust between the warring parties remains deep.
Talks between JEM and Khartoum, hosted in Qatar, have been stalled for months. But there has been a flurry of activity in recent days against a background of thawing relations between Sudan and Chad, which borders Darfur.
Sudan and Chad, both preparing for elections, agreed earlier this month to end their long-running proxy war, fought by arming each other’s rebels. Chadian President Idriss Deby has ethnic links with JEM’s leaders and has been accused of backing JEM.
JEM officials said the “framework” agreement would include a list of areas to be fleshed out in negotiations, including compensation for Darfuris, humanitarian access and the broad topics of “power sharing” and “wealth sharing.”
“This is not the end. It is the beginning of the end,” senior JEM official Al-Tahir al-Feki told Reuters.
JEM officials said Saturday’s deal would be formally ratified by Sudan’s president and JEM leader Khalil Ibrahim in the Qatari capital Doha early next week.
Before the deal was signed, JEM spokesman Ahmed Hussein Adam said the ceasefire would be temporary and dependent on Khartoum’s behavior.
“We will not play their game if they are only interested in buying time, in tactics, in just signing papers to make it easier for them in the elections,” he said. “The vicious circle can begin again and we can resume our armed struggle.”
Sudan holds presidential and legislative elections in April, its first multi-party contests in 24 years.
Sudanese presidential advisor Ghazi Salaheddin, who reached the deal in Chad, told reporters on his return to Khartoum he was ready to sign similar agreements with other rebel groups.
JEM and Darfur’s rebel Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) took up arms against the government in 2003, accusing Khartoum of leaving their region marginalized and underdeveloped.
SLA founder Abdel Wahed Mohamed el-Nur, with strong support among the region’s displaced population, is refusing to talk to Khartoum, demanding an end to violence before negotiations.
The United Nations estimates 300,000 people have died in Darfur’s crisis, but Sudan rejects that figure. The International Criminal Court in The Hague issued an arrest warrant against Bashir last year to face charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the region.
Additional reporting by Khaled Abdel Aziz in Khartoum and Betel Miarom in N'Djamena; editing by Myra MacDonald