KHARTOUM (AFP) – Sudan’s government and rebels in South Kordofan state said Wednesday they are ready to talk about ending a two-year-long war at a planned meeting in Ethiopia next week.
The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) told AFP that African Union mediator Thabo Mbeki sent rebel chairman Malik Agar an invitation “for peace talks in Addis Ababa on April 23.”
“We replied that we are ready,” rebel spokesman Arnu Ngutulu Lodi said, adding that his group will send a 15-member negotiating team.
A senior Sudanese ruling party official confirmed that the talks have been set for next Tuesday.
“Up to now our government is fully committed to the time scheduled by the African Union,” said Rabbie Abdelatti Ebaid of the National Congress Party.
If the two sides meet face-to-face, it would be the first direct talks that would have taken place in almost two years, Lodi said. The rebels and government met indirectly through African Union mediators in a failed attempt to secure humanitarian access to the warzone.
Talk of peace was accompanied by heavy fighting on Wednesday.
Rebels again shelled the state capital Kadugli, targeting what Lodi described as “military bases.”
A Kadugli resident told AFP that one woman was reportedly killed in the mortar barrage on the same area rebels shelled last Friday.
Most people in the neighbourhood seek daytime shelter elsewhere to avoid possible attacks, he said, adding the insurgents “are not precise in their aim,” and just want to make their presence felt.
Residents hope the peace talks will “resolve the problem completely,” he said.
SPLM-N also fired on a military outpost several kilometres east of the capital, where an ammunition storage facility exploded, rebel spokesman Lodi said.
“Today there is heavy fighting around Dandor,” a garrison about 18 kilometres (11 miles) east of Kadugli which government forces were trying to retake after rebels seized it on Monday, he said.
Army spokesman Sawarmi Khaled Saad told AFP his troops had “liberated” Dandor.
“In reaction to that, the rebels tried to create a disturbance in Kadugli, shelling the town,” Sawarmi said.
Sudan’s foreign ministry said last Friday’s shelling of Kadugli killed three civilians, as President Omar al-Bashir visited South Sudan in a symbol of easing tensions between the neighbours, particularly over the South’s alleged support for SPLM-N.
Khartoum had long rejected talks with the insurgents who have also been fighting in another state, Blue Nile.
But on April 1 Bashir said his administration seeks a broad political dialogue, “including (with) those who are armed”.
He announced an amnesty for all political prisoners although none from the SPLM-N are known to have been freed.
“If you put arms aside and come to the negotiating table, this is the route of negotiation,” said Ebaid, of the ruling party.
More than 200,000 people have fled the warzone for South Sudan and Ethiopia as refugees, the United Nations says.
An estimated one million more have been affected inside the two states, where a senior UN aid official has said people were surviving on “roots and leaves”.
The government and rebels disagree about the framework for talks.
SPLM-N wants them under a UN Security Council Resolution which said negotiations should occur on the basis of an agreement the rebels signed in June 2011 with Bashir’s assistant Nafie Ali Nafie.
That unimplemented agreement committed the SPLM-N and the Islamist government to a “political partnership” in the two states and a national vision that recognised the country’s diversity.
Ebaid said talks should focus only on South Kordofan and Blue Nile, “not the whole of Sudan.”
Khartoum wants dialogue under the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement which led to South Sudan’s separation in 2011 a referendum returned a vote overwhelmingly in favour of the move.
That pact said South Kordofan and Blue Nile would have “popular consultations” as well.