Sudan to release 24 Darfur detainees ahead of peace talks

Sunday, February 22, 2009

KHARTOUM, Sudan -- The Sudanese government will release 24 detainees involved in the Darfur conflict as a goodwill gesture before planned peace talks with rebels, the country's justice minister said Saturday.

Sudan and Darfur's strongest rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement, agreed during talks last week to exchange prisoners as a goodwill gesture before more talks. JEM has said they released 21 government soldiers.

A date on further talks has not been announced.

Last week was the first round of negotiations between the government and rebels since 2007. But only JEM took part, casting doubt over how far the talks can go in dealing with the conflict, which includes several rebel groups.

Some 300,000 people have died in Sudan's western region of Darfur and another 2.7 million have been displaced since fighting erupted in 2003. Ethnic African rebels revolted against the Arab-dominated central government, accusing it of neglect and discrimination.

Qatar has been mediating the new talks. Saturday's announcement comes after Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, met with the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamid bin Khalifa Al Thani, in Khartoum.

Justice Minister Abdel-Basset Sabdarat said al-Bashir decided to pardon the 24 prisoners "in support of the Qatari initiative." He did not identify the prisoners.

JEM spokesman Ahmed Hussein said it was not yet clear if those to be released are even members of the rebel group. The group wants the release of its members detained after an attack it launched on the capital in May.

The attack was the first such march on the capital by Darfur rebels.

Human rights groups said hundreds of Darfurians were detained after the attack. Some 50 JEM members, including senior commanders, were tried and sentenced to death in August in hastily convened trials.

Their release would be a major concession and would require a presidential pardon.

Those absent from the talks in Qatar said they were designed to offer al-Bashir a way out of an expected arrest warrant by an international court for war crimes in Darfur.

The Hague, Netherlands-based International Criminal Court is expected to make a decision within days on whether to issue a warrant.

Sudan's intelligence chief Salah Abdallah warned a warrant against al-Bashir may revert Sudan into a hard-line Islamic regime.

"Our message to those who stand behind the ICC is that we were Islamic fundamentalists but have become moderate and civilized and this continues to be our conviction," Abdallah said in comments published in Saturday's newspapers.

"If they press us to return to our past position, we will no doubt return. And if they want us to return into hard-liners anew ... we are capable of doing it."

Al-Bashir took over power in a 1989 military coup and continues to rule on an Islamic platform. During the early 1990s, Sudan was accused of sheltering Islamic militant groups; Osama bin Laden made his home in the country until the government threw him out in 1996.

In an apparent warning against anyone trying to help the ICC arrest al-Bashir if a warrant is issued, Abdallah said that whoever tries to implement the decision will have his hands, head and limbs "chopped," according to the Akhbar al-Youm newspaper.

He was referring to strict Islamic punishment for theft or war against the state. The punishment is still legally permissible in Sudan but is not typically implemented.

Associated Press writer Sarah el Deeb in Khartoum contributed to this report.

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