Darfur rebels sign truce deal with Sudan

Darfur's most powerful rebel group has initialed a truce with the Sudanese government, officials said yesterday, marking the rebel group's return to peace talks aimed at ending the Darfur conflict.

The truce between the rebel Justice and Equality Movement and the Sudanese government takes effect immediately, said Idriss Deby, Chad's president, in a statement.

Justice and Equality Movement spokesman Ahmed Hussein said the deal initialed yesterday was a framework agreement to guide future peace negotiations, including talks on a permanent cease-fire. He said it will be formally signed in Doha, Qatar, on Tuesday in the presence of Deby and the leaders of Sudan and Qatar.

The rebel group has been the most significant holdout in efforts to end the seven-year conflict in Darfur, in which 300,000 people have lost their lives to violence, disease and displacement.

The Justice and Equality Movement will take part in talks in Qatar which aim to reach a final agreement by March 15, Deby's statement said.

Hussein said yesterday's deal was important to the Darfur peace process.

"It's a significant step for peace in Darfur," said Hussein. "It is a considerable achievement for both parties."

In Sudan's capital, Khartoum, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir announced he was pardoning members of the Justice and Equality Movement on death row who had been convicted for taking part in an attack close to Khartoum in May 2008.

Al-Bashir told a campaign rally he had ordered the immediate release of 30 percent of those he had pardoned. According to Sudanese law only the president can pardon someone on death row or commute his or her sentence.

The May 2008 attack on Khartoum's twin city, Omdurman, was the closest a Darfur rebel group had reached the capital. The government said more than 200 people were killed in the attack that shocked Sudan at the time.

Yesterday's developments came as Sudan and Chad have been working for months to improve relations soured by the spillover from the Darfur conflict, with each country accusing the other of supporting the other's rebel groups.

Sudan has often accused Chad of supporting the Justice and Equality Movement, allowing the group to use eastern Chad as its rear base. Saturday's agreement is significant because it appears to have Chad's solid support.

JEM and the Sudan government held peace talks last year that eventually collapsed because the two sides couldn't agree on an exchange of prisoners.

Earlier this month, Deby visited Sudan for the first time in almost six years and discussed with Sudan's president efforts to set up a joint force to patrol their common border.

The UN has said 2.7 million were driven from their homes in Darfur in the fighting between ethnic African rebels and the government and Arab militias.

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