Darfur’s most heavily armed rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement, said on Saturday that it had signed a framework agreement with the Sudanese government in Chad that provides for a ceasefire.
Soon afterwards, Sudanese President Omar al-Beshir announced that he was quashing death sentences handed down by the courts against some 100 JEM fighters for their parts in an unprecedented rebel assault on the capital Khartoum in May 2008.
“We have just initially signed the framework agreement,” JEM spokesman Ahmed Hussein told AFP by telephone from the Chadian capital Ndjamena.
“We will discuss of many issues – return of the IDPs (internally displaced persons), power and wealth sharing, compensation, detainees,” he said, speaking in English.
“We are committed to a peaceful solution for Darfur,” he added. JEM leader “Dr Khalil (Ibrahim) asks to our force to stop” military operations.
A statement from the Chadian presidency said the agreement came after talks sponsored by President Idriss Deby Itno and led to “an immediate ceasefire and the start of negotiations for its application on the ground.”
It should lead to a “final agreement to be signed before March 15” ahead of presidential and legislative elections due in Sudan in April, the statement said.
Beshir’s adviser on Darfur meanwhile said he expected negotiations with the JEM to be smooth and hoped other rebel groups will be drawn into talks with Khartoum.
“I don’t envisage major difficulties,” Ghazi Salaheddine said.
“This is not an exclusionnary arrangement, it does not exclude other movements specially those who come to the Doha process, we are open to them,” he said about talks due to resume next week in the Qatari capital.
“I think we can try to emulate the agreement which we signed with JEM and speed up the process so that we can reach a final agreement as soon as possible.”
Beshir had promised on Friday “good news” about Darfur, adding that an agreement with the JEM would end the devastating seven-year conflict in Darfur which has claimed some 300,000 lives and left 2.7 million refugees, according to UN figures. Sudan puts the death toll at 10,000.
Movement came close to palace in 2008
The movement’s attack on the capital in 2008 brought it to just across the Nile from the presidential palace in the first ever such offensive by a Sudanese rebel group.
The fighting resulted in at least 220 deaths and the capture of a large number of rebel fighters. A total of 105 were later convicted and condemned to death.
President Beshir cancels death sentences
“I cancel all the sentences of hanging pronounced against members of the Justice and Equality Movement,” Beshir said in a campaign speech on Saturday.
“And tomorrow we will release 30 percent of the prisoners.”
A ceasefire with the JEM would close the most active front in Darfur, but smaller rebel groups such as the faction of the Sudanese Liberation Army of France-based exile Abdelwahid Nur have refused to enter talks with Khartoum.
Thousands were forced to flee following recent clashes between the faction and pro-government forces in the fertile Jebel Marra plateau in the heart of Darfur.
Sudan has long accused neighbouring Chad of aiding the rebels, an accusation reciprocated by Ndjamena.
But the two presidents reconciled in Khartoum on February 8 and 9 in a breakthrough that Beshir said had “completely turned the page” on relations.
Beshir, who seized power in a 1989 coup, faces his first contested election campaign and some observers say he has been keen to cement an agreement with the JEM before polling day on April 11.
The president faces an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court on five counts of crimes against humanity and two of war crimes in Darfur.
An appeals chamber of the ICC directed judges earlier this month to rethink their decision to omit genocide from the warrant issued in March last year, saying they had made “an error in law”.