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Darfur rebels release 60 soldiers, police: ICRC

By on July 18, 2009

A major Darfur rebel group released 60 captured government soldiers and police on Saturday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said, a move that could help clear a logjam in troubled peace talks.

The insurgent Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) handed the captives to Red Cross officers who passed them on to government officials on Saturday afternoon, the humanitarian group said.

“JEM has released 55 Sudan Armed Forces soldiers and five policemen,” Red Cross spokesman Saleh Dabbakeh told Reuters.

Talks between JEM and Sudan’s government, which started in Doha in February, have stalled over the timing of confidence building measures, including the release of each other’s prisoners and a ceasefire.

JEM has said it wants Khartoum to release captured rebel fighters before any ceasefire is agreed, while Khartoum says it needs an end to hostilities ahead of other moves.

The rebel group told Reuters the release took place close to the north Darfur settlement of Kutum, adding it was ready to free more captives if the government reciprocated by releasing imprisoned JEM fighters.

“We are fulfilling the goodwill agreements we signed in Doha,” senior JEM official Ahmed Tugud said. “We still have many government captives and are willing to release them if similar steps are taken by the other side.”

No one was immediately available from Sudan’s government to comment on the release.

More than 100 Sudanese men are in prison in Khartoum awaiting execution after being convicted of taking part in a JEM attack on the capital last year.

The Red Cross said Saturday’s release was thought to be the largest handover of prisoners since Sudan’s festering Darfur conflict first surged in 2003.

JEM and the government have released statements saying they were prepared to free captives since February, but up to now no releases have been confirmed by an independent organisation.

JEM was among mostly non-Arab rebels that took up arms against Sudan’s government, accusing it of neglecting the development of the region. Khartoum mobilised troops and mostly Arab militias to crush the uprising, unleashing a wave of violence that Washington and activists have called genocide.

Khartoum denies the charge and says 10,000 people have died in the conflict. U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes has said the death count could be as high as 300,000.

Political tension spiked in Darfur on Thursday after Sudan’s army blamed neighbouring Chad of launching an air raid near the west Darfur settlement of Um Dukhn — the fourth reported Chadian air attack inside Sudan in two months.

Relations between the two oil-producing countries have become entangled in the Darfur conflict. Sudan accuses Chad of supporting JEM — whose leaders have ethnic ties with members of Chad’s political elite — while Chad says Sudan has supported rebel raids on N’Djamena.

The joint U.N./African Union representative in Darfur Rodolphe Adada on Saturday said peacekeepers were investigating the reported attack and urged Sudan and Chad to resolve their differences through dialogue.

“The ongoing tension continues to be one of the major obstacles to the peace and security of Darfur,” he said.


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