KHARTOUM, June 8 (Reuters) - Darfur peace talks are due to resume on Friday after a six-month gap that has seen the political and military landscape in Sudan's vast west change in a way that could improve the chances for a deal.
Despite recent infighting which has raised doubts over their ability to form a unified position, rebels may be more willing to negotiate because the government has taken steps to meet demands that stalled past talks.
The African Union says Khartoum has stopped military flights over Darfur and shown restraint in clashes with rebels in the past few months. Government troops have also withdrawn from areas they occupied during a December offensive and handed over to the AU.
For its part, the government may be more inclined to reach a deal because in a rare move in March, the U.N. Security Council referred Darfur to the International Criminal Court (ICC), which launched a war crimes probe on Monday that is believed to target some government and government-linked militia leaders.
"I would suspect that the government is in a slightly stronger position but the ICC also puts them under more pressure," said Leslie Lefkow, a Sudan researcher at Human Rights Watch.
The top U.N. envoy in Sudan, Jan Pronk, said with the referral the rebels politically had gained as much as they could. "It's over now...there's no reason anymore to fight, you don't have any reason anymore not to negotiate," Pronk said.
The two rebel groups took up arms in early 2003 accusing the Sudanese government of neglect and discrimination against non-Arabs in Darfur.
Tens of thousands of people have been killed and more than 2 million driven from their homes into teeming refugee camps inside Sudan and across the border in Chad.
The talks to begin on Friday will be the fourth in Abuja. The last round of talks collapsed in December in part because the rebel Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) leadership boycotted talks because of the government offensive, which greatly weakened the insurgents on the ground.
AU chief Alpha Oumar Konare, during a brief visit to Sudan on Wednesday, said he hoped this round would be final, adding it would be "criminal" for any party not to attend.
"The better security situation on the ground will comfort those at the negotiating table and leave them to focus on the negotiations, which is an essential element," he added.
JULY 9 TARGET
The African Union, which is sponsoring the peace talks, says it hopes for a deal in the Nigerian capital Abuja before July 9, when a new constitution will be approved in Khartoum after a peace deal with southern rebels to end a separate 20-year civil war in the country's south.
But others have been more cautious about when a peace deal might be reached.
Internal rebel divisions and recent fighting between the two main rebel groups in South Darfur have increased, casting doubts over their ability to be serious negotiating partners.
Military field commanders of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) have announced a second overthrow of the external political leadership, and the AU has expressed concern at fighting between JEM and the other main rebel group, the SLA in the past week which killed 11 people and injured 17.
"With such a lack of unity among the rebel groups, it is not an ideal scenario for serious negotiations," Lefkow said.
During a recent visit to Darfur, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick said the resumption of talks after such a long absence was necessary and may help unite the rebels under the political leadership.
"I think the process of the talks increases the likelihood that they will be pressed to unify," he said.
But Zoellick said it was unlikely a deal would be reached by July 9. "I think that negotiations are going to take some time," he said.
Pronk said a deal by year end was possible.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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