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Sudan to Reciprocate Prisoner Release

A Sudanese government spokesman said that Khartoum "will reciprocate" a move this weekend by a major Darfur rebel group to release 60 prisoners of war. Discussions between the rebel Justice and Equality Movement group and the Sudanese government have faltered for months.

Sudan Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Ali Sadiq told VOA the Sudanese government will announce shortly the release of an undetermined number of Justice and Equality Movement prisoners to meet the rebel group's good faith measure.

"The government has welcomed the move, and [it] will reciprocate very soon," he said.

Sadiq confirmed that JEM's prisoner release over the weekend was undertaken unilaterally, saying that such a move had been discussed but no agreement had been reached prior to the release of the Sudanese soldiers.

"In fact, this has been discussed in Doha over the last month, but they did not reach an agreement. But JEM has taken the step to release 60, and the government welcomes that," he said.

The Sudanese spokesman could not specify the exact number of rebel prisoners that would be released, but said the details of the release will be announced soon.

The Darfur rebel group has reportedly said that it would be willing to release more Sudanese soldiers if Khartoum responded to its action in kind.

The move could put new life into the negotiations between the Justice and Equality Movement and Khartoum. Talks between the two parties began in February in Doha, Qatar, but the talks appeared to have collapsed in recent months.

In an initial confidence-building agreement reached near the start of the talks, both sides agreed to a prisoner exchange. But JEM leaders have accused the Sudanese government of refusing to follow through with the exercise. Sudan has previously stated it would not release any prisoners before a ceasefire was reached.

The Darfur rebel group led an unprecedented, but failed, attack last year on the Sudanese capital.

The prisoner release was overseen by the International Committee for the Red Cross, which acted as the neutral mediator between the two parties. An ICRC official in Sudan would not comment on whether the group is in discussions with the Sudanese government on a possible prisoner release of its own.

The release of JEM rebels could be complicated by the the death sentences Sudan has handed down to more than 100 of the held rebels. Included among the condemned prisoners are two half-brothers of the rebel group's leader, Khalil Ibrahim.

The Justice and Equality Movement has thus far boycotted a move by mediators to include a number of separate Darfur rebel groups in the discussions with the Khartoum government, saying that the group will only engage the government bilaterally.

According to the United Nations, as many as 300,000 people have died and 2.7-million people have been displaced in Darfur since hostilities began in 2003.