KHARTOUM, May 8 (Reuters) - Several Darfur rebel commanders have agreed in principle to hold talks in southern Sudan to unify their positions ahead of possible peace talks with the government, a group of independent mediators said.
Efforts to unify the positions of the many Darfur rebel groups have gathered pace but the fragmentations and divisions among those groups, along with government forces' attacks against them, have derailed the prospects of unity talks.
The latest initiative was brought by the semi-autonomous government of southern Sudan, which said a rebel unity conference could be held in the south by July.
Another group, the Committee for Uniting the National Front, made up of former senior politicians in Khartoum, said it was coordinating with the southern government and contacting rebel commanders to make sure they attend the proposed meeting.
"We spoke with seven rebel field commanders until now and they agreed in principle to attend the talks," Mohamed Osman, a former minister of defence and the spokesman of the group, told Reuters late on Tuesday.
He said the rebels preferred to hold the talks in Juba, the capital of southern Sudan, because they feared being arrested by the government if the talks were held in Khartoum.
Khartoum has welcomed the possibility of peace talks once the rebels are united.
The African Union and U.N. officials have stressed the importance of reaching a political solution to the crisis in Darfur, especially with the Sudanese government rejecting the deployment of a large U.N. force in the vast region.
Jan Eliasson, the U.N. special envoy to Darfur, will arrive in Khartoum on Wednesday with Salim Ahmed Salim, the AU special envoy to the region, for talks with Sudanese officials to help "re-energise" the Darfur peace process, a U.N. statement said.
The world body says around 200,000 people have died and more than 2 million displaced since the conflict flared in 2003 when rebel groups took up arms against the government, accusing it of neglect. Khartoum says only 9,000 have lost their lives.
One main group signed a 2006 peace agreement with the government and small factions later committed themselves to the deal that has, however, failed to stop the violence.
Osman said his group, led by former President Abdel-Rahman Sewar al-Dahab, held talks with rebel factions five months ago in Eritrea and conveyed their demands to the government.
"At the time they said they wanted the position of Sudan's vice president, more regional positions, more individual compensations to the displaced and that Darfur be one province instead of them," he said. "The government said 'No'."
Khartoum has said it was only prepared for minor changes to the 2006 deal. Osman said the fragmentation of the rebels was another problem.
"When we talked to them they were seven groups, now we have 17 armed faction," he said.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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